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Newsline - December 16, 2003


TROOPS, HOSTAGE TAKERS CLASH IN DAGHESTAN
Additional police detachments were sent on 15 December to Daghestan's Tsunta Raion to try to apprehend a group of some 25-30 militants, said by Russian officials to be Chechens, who seized four hostages, including a doctor, in the predominantly Avar-populated village of Shauri earlier that day, Russian media reported. Daghestan's Interior Minister Adilgirei Magomedtagirov also headed for the site of the abductions. The militants then split into several groups and retreated westward toward the internal border between Daghestan and Chechnya. The hunt for them was complicated by adverse weather, according to Interfax. Turan reported that the raiders reappeared during the morning of 16 December in the village of Galatali, where they seized further hostages and then retreated into the mountains after an exchange of fire with Russian troops in which seven of the militants were killed. Daghestan parliament Chairman Mukhu Aliev said on 16 December that the gunmen are definitely Chechens and that they entered Daghestan from Chechnya, Caucasus Press reported. LF

RIGHTIST PARTY LEADERS DISCUSS THEIR RESIGNATIONS...
The political council of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) discussed the proffered resignations of the party heads -- Anatolii Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, Irina Khakamada, and Boris Nemtsov -- on 15 December, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day. The council voted to recommend that a 23 January party congress reject the resignations. According to "Gazeta," council members directed their anger about the party's failure to surpass the 5 percent barrier during the 7 December State Duma elections at Alfred Kokh, who ran the party's campaign. Kokh was not present at the session. JAC

...AS RIGHT-WING PARTY OF UNCERTAIN ORIGINS EMERGES
A new organization called New Rightists already has 62 regional branches and next week will submit to the Justice Ministry the documents necessary for registration as a political party, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 15 December. According to New Rightists President Aleksei Chadaev, the group has existed since August. Now, faced with the defeat of Yabloko and SPS in the State Duma elections, the group hopes to "preserve the right side of the country's political spectrum." According to the daily, Chadaev is closely associated with former Kremlin spin doctor and Foundation for Effective Politics head Gleb Pavlovskii. The daily also reported that ORT Deputy General Director Marat Gelman, who is similarly a spin doctor and a former associate of the Foundation for Effective Politics, is working behind the scenes with the new party. In an interview with "Gazeta," Chadaev denied that his group is backed by the presidential administration. JAC

DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER QUESTIONS WHETHER U.S. GOT THE RIGHT MAN...
Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov told ITAR-TASS on 15 December that his ministry has, as the news agency characterized it, "certain doubts" concerning the 13 December reported arrest of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "It is difficult to judge and comment on who was really arrested, given that there have been many reports about Saddam Hussein's great number of doubles," Fedotov said. "Just as they were talking about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and now that issue is rather hypothetical." Fedotov also told Interfax that any judgment of Iraq's previous regime "is the internal affair of the Iraqi people and only the Iraqi people can decide the fate of their former leaders." The capture of "one or another representative of Iraq's previous leadership is largely symbolic in character," he added. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, meanwhile, said he hoped that Hussein's arrest would "make it possible to find an answer to the question that is of concern to us all: were there or are there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," ORT reported on 15 December. JB

...WHILE ROGOZIN SAYS SADDAM MAY NOT BE TAKEN OUT OF IRAQ
Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc co-leader Dmitrii Rogozin said that international conventions concerning prisoners of war apply to Saddam Hussein, and therefore it is "impermissible to remove him from Iraq," Interfax reported on 15 December. "Even the leaders of the Nazi coalition were tried in Nuremberg, Germany, without being taken away to the United States, the Soviet Union, or the United Kingdom," Rogozin said. Rogozin called Hussein an "old, sick, and neglected man" who is incapable either of reducing or intensifying the violent resistance to the U.S.-led occupation forces. However, Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Federation Council's Defense and Security Committee, predicted that Hussein's arrest will provoke a new wave of terrorist attacks in Iraq, ITAR-TASS reported on 15 December. JB

FORMER FSB OFFICER GOES ON TRIAL...
The Moscow District Military Court on 15 December began considering one of two criminal cases against former Federal Security Service (FSB) Lieutenant Colonel Mikhail Trepashkin, involving charges of revealing state secrets, abusing his position, and illegally possessing ammunition, newsru.com reported. Trepashkin, who worked for the KGB and then the FSB from 1984 until 1997, allegedly copied classified documents and kept them in his home. Police claim they also found unspecified ammunition in his apartment during a search. Prosecutors have filed a second criminal case against Trepashkin, charging him with illegal possession of a handgun (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 October 2003). Trepashkin, who is now a lawyer, claims the ammunition and the gun were planted and that all the evidence against him was fabricated. Aleksandr Goldfarb, acting vice president of the New York-based Foundation for Civil Liberties, said that the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has applied to Justice Minister Yurii Chaika to admit observers to Trepashkin's trial, Ekho Moskvy reported on 15 December. JB

...WHILE NGO SAYS HE'S BEING PERSECUTED FOR PROBING APARTMENT-BUILDING BOMBINGS...
Aleksandr Goldfarb told Ekho Moskvy on 11 December that the ICJ has sent a letter to President Putin stating that the evidence against Trepashkin was fabricated and that he was detained because of his inquiries involving the bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow in September 1999. Trepashkin is the lawyer for Tatyana Morozova, whose mother was killed in one of the Moscow apartment-building blasts, and he planned to present evidence at the trial of two suspects in that bombing showing that the FSB had faked a composite sketch of one of them and was more generally involved in the bombings, according to "Moskovskie novosti," No. 44. Trepashkin also worked with a public commission set up by human rights activist and former Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalev to look into the bombings. In 2002, Trepashkin represented former FSB Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko, an associate of former oligarch Boris Berezovskii and co-author of a book alleging FSB involvement in the 1999 bombings. JB

...AND SUSPECTED BOMBERS' TRIAL REMAINS WRAPPED IN MYSTERY
Igor Trunov, lawyer for a group of victims in the 1999 apartment-building bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, has said that one of the two men accused of complicity in the bombings, Adam Dekkushev, admitted in court that he was involved in preparing the explosives used in the bombings, Interfax reported on 15 December. According to Trunov, Dekkushev said he was trained in explosives at a camp in Chechnya run by Arab field commander Abu Omar, who, Dekkushev reportedly testified, masterminded the bombing plot. Dekkushev, however, told the court that the plan had been to bomb "technical installations," not apartment buildings, but that apartment buildings in Volgodonsk were targeted after security was heightened nationwide following the Moscow bombings. "Novaya gazeta," No. 94, noted on 15 December that the Moscow trial of Dekkushev and co-defendant Yusuf Krymshamkhalov is closed. The newspaper also quoted from what it said was a letter co-authored by Krymshamkhalov claiming that the FSB was behind all the 1999 bombings and identifying a "Russian special-services employee" named Maks Lasovskii as participating in them. JB

HUNGER STRIKE WIDENS IN BASHKORTOSTAN...
About 100 people have joined a hunger strike launched on 14 December in Bashkortostan to protest alleged falsifications in the 7 December republican-level presidential election, RosBalt reported on 15 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003). The strikers are based in cities other than Ufa, including Salavat and Neftekamsk. Hunger striker Vladimir Matveev told reporters on 15 December that their effort was not organized by the election headquarters of Ralif Safin, the candidate who finished third according to official results, and that it includes supporters of both Safin and Sergei Veremeenko, who came in second to incumbent President Murtaza Rakhimov. JAC

...AS LOCAL PROSECUTOR RESIGNS...
Also on 15 December, Bashkir Prosecutor Florid Baikov resigned, Russian media reported. Rosbalt, citing an assistant to the republic's prime minister, reported that Baikov stepped down because of alleged "illegal activities of the leadership of the prosecutor's office during the election campaign." Bashkortostan's First Deputy Prosecutor Vladimir Korostylev has been dismissed, according to the agency. JAC

...AND MEDIA MINISTRY ORDERS SHUTDOWN OF INDEPENDENT TV STATION
The Media Ministry has ordered Bashkortostan's New Television Channel, the only independent television company in Ufa, to stop broadcasting until after the 21 December second-round vote because of alleged violations during the first-round campaign, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported on 15 December. According to the service, during the presidential race, several independent radio stations were pulled off the air and opposition websites, including bashnews.ru, were blocked. JAC

COMPETITORS OF CENTRAL GOVERNOR GET LESS TIME TO PREPARE CHALLENGE...
Legislators in Voronezh Oblast voted on 11 December to hold the next gubernatorial election in the oblast simultaneously with the national presidential election on 14 March, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 15 December. The term of incumbent Governor Vladimir Kulakov was originally set to expire in December 2004, but some legislators argued moving the elections up would save money and ensure a sufficient voter turnout to validate the poll. Opponents of the governor argued that the oblast could save even more money if they postponed the gubernatorial election to coincide with oblast parliamentary elections in March 2005, but this would also give more time to Kulakov's opponents to organize. The measure to move up the date passed by a vote of 25-8. JAC

...FOLLOWING WEAKENING OF LOCAL COMMUNISTS
Governor Kulakov, the former head of the oblast's FSB directorate, said that he has President Putin's support for his re-election bid, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 15 December. Two other local politicians -- former Voronezh Mayor Aleksandr Kovalev and oblast Communist Party Committee First Secretary Ruslan Gostev -- have already said they will challenge Kulakov. Gostev recently lost his seat in the State Duma from a single-mandate district in the oblast to a candidate backed by Kulakov. Kovalev resigned as mayor in November, following months of allegations that he misused some 1 billion rubles ($34 million) in budgetary funds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November 2003). JAC

COURT TRIES TO SUSPEND MAYOR, BUT HE WON'T GO
The Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii Municipal Court has ruled that Mayor Yurii Golenishchev should be temporarily suspended from his post pending the disposition of a criminal investigation, ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti reported on 15 December. The local prosecutor is investigating allegations that Golenishchev misused budgetary funds and failed to provide heating to city residents in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2003). According to RBK, Golenishchev ignored the court decision and continued to work. Prosecutors responded by sending in an investigative team to clarify Golenishchev's reasons for remaining at work. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 16 December, the city legislature is expected take up the issue of naming an acting mayor. Golenishchev's secretary told reporters on 15 December that although the mayor was in his office, he was not talking with anyone or answering any phone calls. JAC

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LAUNCHES NEW PROTESTS
More than 1,000 people attended a protest rally in Yerevan on 13 December convened by the opposition Artarutiun bloc to demand a nationwide referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 15 December. People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian told participants that such a referendum is "a civilized way of solving the problem" of the leadership's legitimacy. He said the opposition will stage further demonstrations in coming weeks to secure popular support for the referendum. Demirchian lost the presidential runoff ballot in March 2003 to Kocharian and claims that the outcome of the voting was rigged in favor of Kocharian, who is therefore not the legitimate president. Speaking at the 13 December rally, Albert Bazeyan of the opposition Hanrapetutiun Party said that the ouster last month of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has shown Armenians that it is possible to remove an unpopular leader. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT BURIED...
Large delegations from Turkey and Russia, and smaller groups of senior officials from the United States, Iran, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan converged on Baku on 15 December to attend the funeral of former President Heidar Aliyev, Azerbaijani and international media reported. But few foreign dignitaries, except for acting Georgian President Nino Burdjanadze and presidential candidate Mikhail Saakashvili, accompanied the casket to the Avenue of Honor, where the former president was interred beside his late wife Zarifa, a Western official in Baku informed "RFE/RL Newsline." Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis filed past the casket lying in state at the Palace of the Republic. LF

...AS FELLOW PRESIDENTS RECALL HIS MERITS
Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the world leaders who attended former President Aliyev's funeral in Baku on 15 December, Interfax reported. Speaking to journalists after meeting with Aliyev's son and Azerbaijan's new president, Ilham Aliyev, Putin said he had enjoyed "warm personal relations" over the last four years with the elder Aliyev, whom he called a "prominent statesman" and "a big friend of Russia." Putin also met at the funeral ceremony with acting Georgian President Burdjanadze to discuss the 4 January Georgian presidential ballot and the recent Russian decision to ease the visa requirement for residents of Georgia's Adjar Autonomous Republic, Interfax reported. Burdjanadze for her part talked for some time with Azerbaijani President Aliyev, and for 10 minutes with Adjar Supreme Council leader Aslan Abashidze. Also attending the funeral were Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who praised the deceased as "a great man" and "a friend with whom I could consult," according to Interfax, and former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, now the last surviving member of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's Politburo. Armenian President Kocharian sent condolences expressing his "sincere sympathies" to President Aliyev, but no member of the Armenian leadership attended the funeral, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 15 December. JB/LF

GEORGIAN MINISTER POSTPONES VISIT TO ADJARIA
Due to former Azerbaijan President Aliyev's demise, Georgian Minister of State Zurab Zhvania has postponed "for several days" his planned 15 December visit to Batumi for consultations with Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Abashidze, Caucasus Press reported. Abashidze continues to demand that the 4 January presidential ballot and the repeat parliamentary elections be postponed for several months, warning that if the 4 January presidential ballot takes place as scheduled, voters in Adjaria will not participate. Speaking at a press conference in Kutaisi on 14 December, Georgian presidential candidate and former Imereti Governor Temur Shashiashvili said he believes that Abashidze might agree to allow voting on 4 January to take place in return for unspecified concessions on the part of the central Georgian government, Caucasus Press reported. Shashiashvili said that if no such accommodation is reached between Batumi and Tbilisi, he will withdraw his candidacy and ask the other four rival candidates to Saakashvili to do likewise. Shashiashvili said the election cannot take place if there is only one candidate. LF

SUPPORTERS OF REJECTED GEORGIAN PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL STAGE PROTEST
Some 200 supporters of former Georgian State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze congregated near the Central Election Commission building in Tbilisi on 15 December to begin an open-ended protest against that body's refusal to register Giorgadze as a candidate in the 4 January presidential ballot, Interfax and rustavi2.com reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003). LF

PIPELINE CONSTRUCTION WORKERS IN GEORGIA STRIKE FOR PAY INCREASE
Local workers engaged in the construction of the Georgian section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export pipeline for Caspian oil have staged protest strikes at several locations over the past week to demand a pay increase and that their wages be paid on time, Georgian media reported. They are complaining that they are paid only 1 lari ($0.46) per day, whereas their counterparts in Azerbaijan and Turkey receive $2 per hour. Builders in Tetri Tsqaro put down their tools on 11 December, while some 100 of their colleagues went on strike in Rustavi on 14 December. Similar incidents were reported in Marneuli, Tsalka, and Gardabani. Caucasus Press on 16 December quoted an unnamed spokesman for the consortium engaged in building the pipeline as saying that the workers' demands are unacceptable. LF

ABKHAZ LEADERSHIP STEPS UP SECURITY MEASURES
The Abkhaz security service has intensified protection of strategic facilities, including power stations, reservoirs, large industrial enterprises, bridges, and the Abkhaz State University building in Sukhum, in response to reports of anticipated terrorist attacks in the run-up to the 4 January Georgian presidential election, Interfax and Caucasus Press quoted Abkhaz National Security Service head Givi Agrba as saying on 15 December. Also on 15 December, Davit Shengelia, who heads the Forest Brothers Georgian guerrilla formation, disclaimed responsibility for the explosion on 10 December that damaged a war memorial in Sukhum, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2003). LF

KAZAKH PARLIAMENTARIAN MOVES FROM DEMOCRATIC CHOICE TO COMMUNISTS
Kazakh parliamentarian Tolen Tokhtasynov has moved from a leadership position in the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement to one in the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, kazinform.kz reported on 15 December. According to sources in the Communist Party's Central Committee, Tokhtasynov's surprise election as a Central Committee secretary during a 13 December party plenum was engineered by party head Serikbolsyn Abdildin against the will of many committee members. Shortly before his switch to the Communists, Tokhtasynov was involved in a DVK decision to seek registration as a political party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2003). The Communist Party previously supported the DVK. BB

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENTARIAN DEMANDS EXPLANATION OF KYRGYZ-UZBEK BORDER INCIDENT
Kyrgyz opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov on 15 December called for an explanation of a recent incident in southern Kyrgyzstan's Djalal-Abad Oblast, in which Uzbek police illegally crossed the Kyrgyz border and tried to arrest a Kyrgyz citizen, "Obshchestvennyi reiting" reported. Beknazarov particularly wants to know why Kyrgyz officials let the Uzbek officers return to Uzbekistan after they had been captured and handed over to Kyrgyz police by local residents. He also asked why the Kyrgyz police had not prevented the incident altogether. The incident occurred in the Aksy Raion, where relations between police and the citizens have been difficult since police killed five demonstrators in March 2002. Beknazarov persuaded most of his fellow members of the Legislative Assembly (lower house) that they should investigate the incident further. BB

KYRGYZ PARTY LEADER CONFIRMED AS OBLAST GOVERNOR
Tokon Shailieva, who was appointed acting governor of northern Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul Oblast on 8 December by President Askar Akaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003), has been confirmed as governor, kabar.kg reported on 13 December. Shailieva is the first woman to hold a governorship in Kyrgyzstan. She has been prominent in Kyrgyz politics for many years as head of the Democratic Party of Women of Kyrgyzstan, which she recently persuaded to rename itself New Force and open its membership to all citizens (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November 2003). New Force is considered a pro-presidential party. BB

TAJIK GROUP GOES TO RUSSIA TO BRING HOME LABOR MIGRANTS
A commission of Tajik railway officials, law enforcement officers, and journalists has gone to Astrakhan to help Tajik labor migrants stranded in the southern Russian city to return home, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 15 December. The stranded migrants appealed for help in a message that was published in the Dushanbe newspaper "Charkh-i Gardun" on 28 November. That message said that state air and rail booking offices were refusing to sell tickets to the migrants, and commercial sources were charging more than they could afford. Earlier, a Tajik team was sent to Moscow to investigate fraud allegations made by migrants against the Tajik national transportation office in the Russian capital. BB

TAJIK PRESIDENT APPOINTS NEW PRESS SECRETARY
Imomali Rakhmonov on 15 December appointed his long-serving press spokesman Zafar Saidov to head the official state news agency Khovar, Saidov told Interfax the same day and Khovar reported on 16 December. Saidov, who headed the Tajik Foreign Ministry's information department from 1993 until 1995, has been presidential press secretary since November 1995. His replacement as presidential press secretary is Abdufatokh Sharipov, previously chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Science, Culture and Youth. BB

UZBEK PRESIDENT LAYS OUT 2004 SOCIAL PROGRAM
Islam Karimov signed a decree on 12 December on creating a commission to prepare and implement a program for social development in 2004, which has been designated the "Year of Kindness and Mercy" in Uzbekistan, uzreport.com reported on 14 December. The decree lists measures to be included in the program in support of the elderly, orphans, large families, and families lacking a breadwinner. Government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses are supposed to be drawn into implementation of the ambitious program, which Karimov wrote is supposed to strengthen the family, protect mothers and children and human rights, and alleviate social problems such as unemployment. The commission's program is supposed to be submitted to the cabinet within a month. BB

UZBEK COURT RELEASES WOMAN CONVICTED OF EXTREMISM
Ziroat Tashpulatova, a Tashkent woman arrested on 15 October on charges of involvement with religious extremist organizations and seeking to overthrow the constitutional order, was sentenced by a Tashkent raion criminal court on 11 December to a three-year suspended sentence and released from custody, the press center of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Monitors of Uzbekistan reported the following day. Human rights organizations in Tashkent have insisted that the charges against Tashpulatova were fabricated and that her arrest was not sanctioned by a prosecutor. According to a human rights activist who attended the trial, Tashpulatova's lawyer asked the court to bring charges against police officers, who, he alleged, had abused his client verbally and physically. Although she was released, Tashpulatova remains under police supervision, and she told journalists after her release that she intends to appeal her conviction to the Tashkent Municipal Court. The same human rights group reported on 12 December that the family of imprisoned journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov had immigrated that day to the United States. Sharipov was convicted in August on homosexuality charges that the Uzbek human rights community say were politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2003). BB

EXILED OPPOSITION LEADER CALLS FOR KEEPING BELARUS INDEPENDENT FROM EAST, WEST
The opposition Conservative Christian Party re-elected Zyanon Paznyak as its leader at a congress in Minsk on 14 December, Belapan reported on 15 December. Paznyak left Belarus in 1996 fearing for his life and has been living abroad since then. In his address read at the congress, Paznyak called on his party colleagues to "prevent the loss of the country's independence, preserve the Belarusian language, culture, heritage, and property at any cost by overthrowing the illegitimate pro-Moscow government." Paznyak warned Belarusian patriots against following either an Eastern or Western model of development. "We don't need to turn left or right, east or, thoughtlessly, west," he said. "We are Europe, Eastern Europe. The present-day liberal Western Europe has nothing good to offer us. We are strangers there in the same way as we are strangers in Russia." JM

UKRAINIAN SOCIALISTS CALL FOR SINGLE OPPOSITION PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE...
The Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU) has issued an appeal to Our Ukraine, the Communist Party of Ukraine, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc to agree on a single presidential candidate by mid-May, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) reported on 15 December. "Fielding a single candidate from the opposition is necessary because this is expected by the overwhelming majority of Ukraine's voters [and also] simplifies the positioning during the election campaign and actually makes the [2004 presidential] ballot a referendum on confidence in the authorities and the opposition," the appeal reads. The SPU declares its readiness to support any of the four opposition leaders -- Viktor Yushchenko, Petro Symonenko, Yuliya Tymoshenko, or Oleksandr Moroz -- during the election campaign, provided that the four opposition parties agree on a single presidential candidate. Meanwhile, Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko has ruled out such an agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003). JM

...AS PRESIDENTIAL-ADMINISTRATION CHIEF URGES CENTER-LEFT ALLIANCE AGAINST RIGHT WING
Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party-united and head of the presidential administration, has call via his website (http://www.medvedchuk.org.ua) for a "broad center-left coalition" in order to "preserve the political stability and the moderate political course" in Ukraine. "The principal threat to democracy is coming today not from the left, but the right political wing," Medvedchuk argues. Our Ukraine lawmaker Taras Stetskiv said Medvedchuk's appeal is intended "to split the opposition and push [Our Ukraine leader Viktor] Yushchenko to the right extremist wing," the Our Ukraine press service reported. JM

RUSSIAN POLITICIAN UNDERLINES NEED FOR PRAGMATIC RELATIONS WITH LATVIA
A delegation of the Russian Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee led by Chairman Mikhail Margelov began a five-day visit to Latvia on 14 December, LETA and BNS reported. In talks with the Latvian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on 15 December, Margelov said bilateral relations should be developed on pragmatic -- not political -- grounds. He surprised his Latvian counterpart Inese Vaidere on 15 December by saying he supports the initiative to evaluate the crimes committed by the communist regime in Latvia. When asked about the naturalization process in Latvia, he replied that he will comment on that issue only after talking with his aunt in Daugavpils on 17 December. Margelov and Latvian parliamentary speaker Ingrida Udre discussed future political and economic cooperation and the possible signing of a Latvian-Russian border agreement. SG

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT'S ECONOMIC ADVISER RETURNS TO WORK
Presidential adviser for economic matters Jonas Ragauskas, whose resignation President Rolandas Paksas requested and approved in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 November 2003), returned to that post on 15 December, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. Ragauskas said Paksas invited him to rejoin the presidential team the previous week and he accepted the offer. The president's adviser for legal issues, Ona Buisiene, the only one of the president's six top advisers whose resignation Paksas did not accept, announced the same morning that she submitted her resignation for personal reasons, effective from 22 December. SG

POLISH RAIL WORKERS BLOCK TRAFFIC TO DEMAND MORE FUNDS
Employees of Polish Railways blocked railway stations and the movement of trains for several hours in many places throughout the country on 16 December, demanding that the government meet previous pledges to provide more funds for regional railways, halt planned line closures, and present a restructuring program for the company, the "Gazeta Wyborcza" website (http://www1.gazeta.pl) reported. Under threat of a general strike from railway unions in November, the government pledged 1.14 billon zlotys ($300 million) in subsidies for Polish Railways in 2004. JM

POLISH MINISTER UPBEAT ON TIES WITH GERMANY, DESPITE EU SUMMIT FIASCO
Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz told journalists on 15 December that the course of recent contacts with German leaders indicates that there will be more, rather than fewer, new initiatives to intensify and strengthen Polish-German cooperation, PAP reported. Cimoszewicz was asked if he is afraid the Germans might respond with financial sanctions following Poland's opposition to the draft EU constitution during the 12-13 December EU summit in Brussels. "Germany is our friend and it is a misunderstanding when you say that they have tendencies to behave emotionally," Cimoszewicz said. JM

EU COMMISSIONER WARNS IN PRAGUE AGAINST DETERIORATION IN RELATIONS
Visiting Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen told journalists in Prague on 15 December that the failure of the EU summit in Brussels last week to reach agreement on a proposed constitution could deteriorate into a serious EU crisis, CTK reported. Verheugen added that there is still a chance for a compromise to be reached and that negotiations should not be rushed. He also said it is unnecessary to start speaking in terms of a "two-speed" integration of the EU -- an allusion to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's suggestion in Brussels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003). Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said on 15 December that if a "two-speed" Europe emerges, the Czech Republic must join those countries in favor of faster integration, CTK reported. MS

CZECH PRESIDENT, U.S. TRADE SECRETARY DISCUSS FIGHTER PURCHASE...
President Vaclav Klaus said on 15 December that he believes the Czech government will consider the country's strategic interests when deciding which supersonic fighter jets to purchase, according to CTK. Klaus was speaking after talks in Prague with U.S. Trade Secretary Donald Evans. Evans told journalists that U.S. officials have raised the issue with Czech authorities, adding, "We have been giving clear indication of our strong support for those countries" that have submitted offers to sell F-16s to the Czech government. Earlier this month, a Defense Ministry commission unanimously recommended that the government opt for a Swedish offer of Gripen jets, manufactured by Saab and BAE Systems, AP reported. MS

...AS CZECH, SLOVAK DEFENSE MINISTERS SAY DECISION WILL NOT AFFECT 'JOINT SKY'
Visiting Slovak Defense Minister Juraj Liska and his Czech counterpart Miroslav Kostelka told journalists after talks in Prague on 15 December that the Czech government's decision on which supersonic fighters to purchase will not affect the two countries' joint airspace-defense plans, CTK reported. The ministers said the "Joint Sky" project is currently under examination by Czech and Slovak experts. They also said that other joint cooperation projects include the modernization of the two countries' MiG-24 combat helicopters and a joint presence within NATO's KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosova, according to TASR. MS

CZECH, SLOVAK MINISTERS PLAY DOWN MIGRATION OF ROMA
Visiting Czech Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares and his Slovak counterpart Pal Csaky agreed in talks in Bratislava on 15 December that the migration of Slovak Roma to the Czech Republic is a problem, but not a major one, CTK reported. The two ministers agreed to set up a special commission to examine the issue, focusing on prevention. Mares said 1,046 Slovak Roma have sought asylum in the Czech Republic in the past 11 months, but he added that none will be granted asylum status, as Prague has fully adopted EU legislation on the matter. He said the Czech Republic is not a country where one can engage in "social tourism," adding that foreign nationals who do not work in the Czech Republic are not entitled to welfare benefits. MS

SLOVAK UNIONS CLAIM VICTORY IN DRIVE TO FORCE REFERENDUM ON EARLY ELECTIONS
Slovak Trade Unions Confederation (KOZ) leader Ivan Saktor told journalists on 15 December that nearly 442,000 signatures have been collected on the KOZ-initiated petition drive to force a nonbinding referendum on early elections, TASR and CTK reported. The signature drive began on 15 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2003). Under the Slovak Constitution, the head of state must call a referendum if 350,000 eligible voters back the measure, and half of eligible voters must participate in the referendum itself for its results to count. Even then, the referendum's outcome is nonbinding, and parliament would have to vote to disband and call early elections. Opinion polls show that the senior ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) would fail to pass the 5 percent parliamentary threshold if elections were held now. MS

SLOVAK FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS FAILED EU SUMMIT DOES NOT AMOUNT TO CRISIS
Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said on 15 December that the failure of EU and accession-country leaders to agree on a draft European constitution represents a failure but not a crisis for the EU, TASR reported. Kukan said Slovakia's planned accession on 1 May will be unaffected by the Brussels summit, since EU enlargement was agreed at the Nice summit in 2000. He also said that cooperation among the Visegrad Four will continue despite the fact that the Polish position differed from that of its Visegrad partners -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia -- over EU voting procedures. MS

ETHNIC HUNGARIAN GROUP DEMANDS SLOVAK COMPENSATION FOR POSTWAR INJUSTICES
In an interview with the Czech daily "Pravo" on 15 December, the head of the Association of Deported Hungarians in Slovakia said ethnic Hungarians deported or forced into slave labor in 1945-48 are demanding compensation from the Slovak government, CTK reported. "We expect the Slovak government to compensate these people and their descendants in the same manner that citizens deported from wartime Slovakia during World War II were compensated," Miklos Krivanszky said in an apparent reference to Jewish deportees. Krivanszky says his association's appeal to Prime Minister Dzurinda in November has not met with a reply (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2003). MS

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT RATIFIES EU EXPANSION TREATY...
In a unanimous vote on 15 December, Hungarian lawmakers ratified the EU Treaty of Accession that was signed in Athens on 16 April, clearing the way for Hungary to become a full member of the union on 1 May 2004, Hungarian dailies reported. Hungary's referendum in April suggested nearly 84 percent support for EU membership, although fewer than 46 percent of eligible voters participated in that plebiscite (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 April 2003). MSZ

...AND APPROVES MODIFIED 2004 BUDGET
With 197 votes in favor, 14 against, and one abstention, parliament approved a modified budget for 2004 on 15 December, the MTI news agency reported. Deputies from the largest opposition party, FIDESZ, were not present for the vote. Total revenues in the 2004 central budget are projected at 6.13 trillion forints ($28.5 billion) and expenses at 5.48 trillion forints. The budget estimates GDP growth at 3.5 percent and inflation of 5.5 percent-6.0 percent. The central budget deficit is projected at 651 billion forints. Earlier the same day, parliament approved controversial amendments to the law guiding the functioning of the PSZAF financial supervisory authority, MTI reported. As a result, the head of the PSZAF will be replaced by a five-member supervisory board, and a new director will be appointed to manage operations. The opposition FIDESZ boycotted the PSZAF vote, left the session, and did not return for the budget vote. MSZ

HUNGARIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT NULLIFIES HOSPITAL-PRIVATIZATION BILL
Hungary's Constitutional Court struck down a parliamentary-approved bill on hospital privatizations on 15 December, quoting procedural irregularities, "Nepszabadsag" reported. The court ruled that deputies violated the constitution by passing the bill unchanged and without debate after President Ferenc Madl returned it for reconsideration by the legislature (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 24 June 2003). Health Minister Mihaly Kokeny said it is encouraging that the court did not strike down the bill on the basis of its content, and he pledged that health-care reforms will continue, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. FIDESZ representatives described the court ruling as an unqualified success. FIDESZ health-care leader Gabriella Selmeczi said she hopes the ruling Socialist Party will not resubmit the bill to parliament, "Nepszabadsag" reported. MSZ

CROATIA TO SEEK BETTER U.S. TIES...
Miomir Zuzul, who is widely expected to become Croatia's next foreign minister, told Reuters in Zagreb on 16 December that "EU membership remains our top priority" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 12 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 June and 5 December 2003). "We will [maintain] the current course [toward membership] but will try to shift into a higher gear. Our aim is to catch up with Bulgaria and Romania and join together with them, whenever that date is," he added. Referring to Croatia's relations with the United States, which have been strained by the outgoing government's policy of deferring to the EU on the International Criminal Court and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Zuzul said: "We want to lift relations [with the United States] to a better-than-ever level. The U.S. role in Europe is irreplaceable, and we want balanced relations with the EU and the United States. I do not believe Croatia has to choose between one of them." PM

...AND REGIONAL STABILITY
Zuzul told Reuters in Zagreb on 16 December that the new government will "cooperate with [the Hague-based war crimes] tribunal even when [Zagreb and the tribunal] disagree." Turning to Croatia's relations with other former Yugoslav republics, he noted that "we want to see Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia move towards NATO and EU membership, and we will support them. However, we do not want to be hostage to their progress." Each country should move forward toward Euro-Atlantic integration at its own pace, he added. Referring to the possibility of an ultra-nationalist victory in the 28 December Serbian parliamentary elections, Zuzul said: "We hope the victors will be politicians who share our vision of good neighborly relations. Relations between Zagreb and Belgrade have always been [highly important] for this region." He indicated that Croatia respects Bosnia's sovereignty and independence, adding "Bosnia is unstable enough as it is. Any destabilization from the outside could endanger the whole region, but such destabilization will certainly not come from Croatia." PM

PUTIN SAYS CROATIA IS RUSSIA'S TOP EX-YUGOSLAV TRADING PARTNER
Russian President Vladimir Putin told visiting Croatian President Stipe Mesic in Moscow on 15 December that "Croatia already takes first place among the countries...of former Yugoslavia" in trade with Russia, adding, however, that "a lot needs to be done to reach the $1 billion mark in trade," dpa reported. Mesic responded that Croatia has "every reason to develop our cooperation" and not miss any possible opportunity to improve it. Mesic also noted that there are no outstanding political issues between the two countries, Interfax reported. On 16 December, he is scheduled to lay the cornerstone for the Croatian consulate in Kaliningrad, from where he will return to Zagreb. PM

BOSNIAN MINISTER DRAWS PARALLELS WITH IRAQI ARREST
Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic said in Sarajevo on 15 December that the recent arrest of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will contribute to the peace and stabilization of that country, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. Ivanic noted that the Bosnian authorities are primarily responsible for arresting indicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic but argued that the international community should also do more to bring him to justice. PM

EU CALLS ON SERBIA TO 'CHOOSE THE FUTURE'
After meeting in Belgrade with Serbia and Montenegro's President Svetozar Marovic on 15 December, EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana said Serbia will choose between the past and the future in the 28 December parliamentary elections, Hina reported. Solana stressed that he hopes Serbs will "choose the future...[and] the path to Europe," adding that the EU is ready to help. He criticized the decision by several Serbian political parties to include indicted war criminals on their election slates, which, he said, could be understood as an "unnecessary provocation" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003). Solana also met with Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic, former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, and Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic. Recent polls suggest that the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) led by indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj is likely to receive more votes than any other single party. PM

DISARMAMENT OPERATION ENDS IN MACEDONIA
On 15 December, Macedonia's six-week, no-questions-asked operation to disarm the civilian population ended, MIA news agency reported. Citizens handed over more than 5,100 firearms, 41 rocket launchers, and large amounts of ammunition, mines, and explosives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November and 1 and 5 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 29 August 2003). It was the second weapons amnesty in as many years, following the NATO-led disarmament operation Essential Harvest in the fall of 2001. Some observers believe it will be necessary to carry out more such operations to further reduce the large number of illegally held arms in a country of 2 million, where there is an old and deeply rooted gun culture. UB

ROMANIAN PARLIAMENTARY PARTIES LASH OUT AT CNMT
All parties represented in the Romanian upper house, including the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), condemned on 15 December the recent setting up of the National Council of Hungarians of Transylvania (CNMT), Romanian Radio reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2003). The senators said the CNMT defies the constitution and is likely to create artificial interethnic tension. MS

ROMANIAN PREMIER IS 'MAN OF THE YEAR 2003'
At a ceremony at Bucharest's Opera House on 15 December, former King Michael I designated Prime Minister Adrian Nastase "Man of the Year 2003," Romanian Radio reported. Nastase called the event "a meeting between history and the present." He said he hopes a better future awaits Romania, which should finally occupy its "natural place" in Europe and not at the continent's periphery. He also said he owes the distinction to the "team spirit" of his government's members. MS

PPCD RENEWS PROTEST DEMONSTRATIONS IN CHISINAU
The opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) renewed on 15 December in Chisinau its protest demonstrations at the parliament building, Romanian Radio reported. PPCD Deputy Chairman Stefan Secareanu said the decision to renew the protests is a natural reaction to the recent approval by parliament in first reading of President Vladimir Voronin's Concept of the State's Nationalities Policy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003). MS

TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL PUBLISHES REPORT ON MOLDOVAN CORRUPTION
A Transparency International report released in Chisinau on 15 December says Moldovan customs perform poorly and uncover only some 10 percent of smuggling, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The report says the damage to the state budget is "gigantic," amounting to as much as 70 percent of the current revenues. Most of the smuggled goods are cigarettes, alcohol, medicine, narcotics, and weapons, according to the report. The report also says that the highest level of corruption is to be found in Chisinau, followed by the Gagauz-Yeri Autonomous Republic. MS

LAST TWO DEPUTIES ELECTED TO GAGAUZ-YERI PARLIAMENT
Elections to the Gagauz-Yeri Popular Assembly were completed on 14 December, with runoffs taking place in two constituencies where turnout had previously been too low for the ballot to be valid, Infotag reported. The two winners are a member of the Ravnopraviye (Equal Rights) movement and an independent. The assembly is thus formed by 17 independent deputies, 16 communists, one deputy representing the Socialist Party, and the deputy from Ravnopraviye. MS

BULGARIAN CHIEF OF STAFF ADMITS PROBLEMS WITH SECOND IRAQ-BOUND CONTINGENT
General Nikola Kolev, the Bulgarian Army chief of General Staff, told journalists in Sofia on 15 December that the army has had problems recruiting personnel to replace the 500-strong detachment currently stationed in the Iraqi city of Karbala, mediapool.bg reported. Kolev said it is especially difficult to find qualified medical and logistics staff, but declined to give any figures. UB

CONFUSION OVER BULGARIA'S MUSLIM LEADERSHIP
Following the 13 December election of Fikri Sali as the country's new chief mufti by a conference of Muslim clerics, two more Muslim leaders have claimed that position and it is possible that a court will decide who will be the legitimate leader of the Muslims in Bulgaria, mediapool.bg reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003). Also on 13 December, an alternative forum convened by former Chief Mufti Nedim Gendzhev elected Ali Saadik, a regional mufti from Plovdiv, as chief mufti (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 November 2003). In the meantime, unspecified sources announced in the Danube port of Ruse that a court registered Necib Daut Mutalib as the chief mufti of the Hanafi Sunnis in Bulgaria. Mutalib was reportedly elected at a national conference already on 13 April, mediapool.bg reported. According to the 2001 census, Muslims make up more than 12 percent of Bulgaria's population of 8 million. UB

HEIDAR ALIYEV: AZERBAIJAN'S POLITICAL COLOSSUS
The death of former Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev was announced on 12 December. Aliyev was 80 and had been hospitalized since early July, first in Ankara and then in Ohio's Cleveland Clinic. Aliyev became president of the Azerbaijan Republic since October 1993, and he presided over the signing of landmark deals to exploit Azerbaijan's Caspian oil reserves and to build a pipeline to export that oil to Turkey. On 17 April, he finally affirmed that Azerbaijan had decided on and will continue to pursue a low-key policy aimed at meeting the requirements for eventual NATO membership.

According to his official biography, Aliyev was born into a blue-collar family in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on 10 May 1923. But the opposition newspaper "Hurriyet" claimed in early July that Aliyev was in fact born four years earlier, in March 1919, and that he falsified his date of birth to avoid conscription during World War II. The paper further alleged that in the 1970s Aliyev fired then-Prosecutor-General Gambai Mamedov for making that information public.

Upon graduating in 1939 from the Nakhichevan Pedagogical Institute (that date suggests that the 1919 date of birth is more plausible than 1923), Aliyev entered the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, where he must have swiftly made a favorable impression on his superiors: he transferred to Moscow to a staff assignment with the USSR Council of People's Commissars (the forerunner of the USSR Council of Ministers), joining the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1945.

Again according to his official biography, in 1950 he returned to Baku and transferred to the republican Ministry for State Security (later the KGB), working his way up through the ranks to become republican KGB deputy chairman in 1964 and chairman in 1967. But according to sociologist Ilya Zemtsov, who worked closely with Aliyev in Baku in the 1970s, in 1953 Aliyev was assigned to the Eastern Department of the KGB and traveled extensively in the Near and Middle East. In the late 1950s, according to Zemtsov, Aliyev graduated from the KGB Higher School and was promoted to the rank of colonel. Only after that was he sent back to Azerbaijan.

In 1969, Aliyev's immediate superior, USSR KGB Chairman Semen Tsvigun, recommended him to CPSU Central Committee General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, who was married to Tsvigun's sister. Brezhnev agreed that Aliyev should replace the notoriously corrupt and inefficient Azerbaijan Communist Party First Secretary Veli Akhundov. For the next 13 years, Aliyev lavished flattery (and diamonds) on the ailing Brezhnev, who swallowed his claims to have galvanized the republic's moribund economy, doubled agricultural output, and eradicated the corruption for which Azerbaijan had become a byword. It was on the strength of that reputation as a capable and energetic economic manager that former KGB Chairman Yurii Andropov brought Aliyev to Moscow in November 1982 to serve as a first deputy chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers.

But in 1987, Aliyev fell foul of Mikhail Gorbachev, who had succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as CPSU general secretary in March 1985. At a Central Committee plenum in November 1987, Aliyev was dismissed "on health grounds" and expelled from the Politburo. Aliyev lived quietly for several years in Moscow, but in 1990 he demonstratively quit the Communist Party to protest the arbitrary killings of Azerbaijanis in Baku by Soviet troops dispatched by Gorbachev. In 1991, Aliyev returned to his native Nakhichevan, and in September 1991 he was elected chairman of the republican Supreme Soviet.

When rebel Colonel Suret Guseinov launched his insurrection against the regime of Azerbaijan Popular Front Chairman Abulfaz Elchibey in early June 1993, Elchibey summoned Aliyev from Nakhichevan and engineered his election as parliament speaker. Days later, Elchibey fled Baku, whereupon Aliyev co-opted Huseinov, offering him the post of prime minister. Aliyev's position as head of state was formalized in a presidential ballot in October 1993, in which he defeated two political unknowns. Huseinov escaped to Moscow one year later following the collapse of what was said to be an attempt to oust Aliyev.

Aliyev was re-elected president in 1998 in a ballot marred by egregious falsification, and he planned to run for a third term in 2003, but was prevented from doing so by his failing health. In August, when already hospitalized, he appointed his son, Ilham, as prime minister, thus paving the way for the latter's successful election as president in October.

As president of Azerbaijan, Aliev presided over a clan-based elite that carved up the spoils of privatization and oil, while the vast majority of the population lived in poverty. The Yeni Azerbaycan Party he created to serve as his formal power base dominates the parliament, in which opposition parties occupy only a handful of the 125 seats. Despite his professed commitment to democratization, he failed to promote political pluralism, playing cat-and-mouse with opposition parties and with the independent media. Foreign investors have sunk millions of dollars into developing the oil-and-gas sector, some with spectacular success, while several consortiums have been dissolved after trial drilling failed to find oil in commercially viable quantities. But other sectors of the economy, including agriculture, are stagnating, and infrastructure across the country has fallen into decay and unemployment has skyrocketed.

Nor did Aliyev succeed in resolving the Karabakh conflict, or in winning back any of the 15 percent of Azerbaijani territory that was controlled by Armenian forces when he was first elected president. But having brought Azerbaijan back into the CIS in 1993, he succeeded in crafting and implementing a foreign policy that balanced the conflicting and shifting interests of Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States. Azerbaijan was a founding member of the GUAM alignment in 1997, and offered to host a U.S. or NATO military base even before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States.

But at the same time, Aliyev presided over a rapprochement with Russia. The more than 100 strong Russian delegation that traveled to Baku to attend his funeral was led by President Vladimir Putin, who said of the deceased: "Not only did I think of him with a lot of respect -- I loved him. For me personally, and for relations between our countries, it certainly is a big loss."

As for the loss to his country, the Internet publication zerkalo.az observed on 13 December that it is impossible to underestimate the impact of the news of his death on generations of Azerbaijanis for whom he epitomized everything positive Azerbaijan has achieved during their lifetime. Britain's "Daily Telegraph" on 16 December quoted an elderly mourner on the streets of Baku as saying, "I don't believe such a person will ever be born again."

GENDER DISPUTE THREATENS AFGHAN CONSTITUTIONAL ASSEMBLY FROM ITS OUTSET...
Even before debate on the draft Afghan constitution began officially on 15 December, a controversy over the representation of women in the Constitutional Loya Jirga threatened the process, "The New York Times," reported on 16 December. The row reportedly arose from Constitutional Loya Jirga Chairman and former Afghan President Sebghatullah Mojadeddi's refusal to appoint a deputy chairwoman after he told female delegates that they should not try to put themselves on a level with males. Mojadeddi, who is considered a moderate among the religious leaders, reportedly said that even God did not grant women equal rights with men, citing sharia doctrine that makes the votes of two women equal to that of one man. The Constitutional Loya Jirga was originally envisaged with just two deputy chairpersons, but Mojadeddi instead appointed three, all of them men. After female delegates threatened to walk out of the assembly on 15 December, Mojadeddi named a woman, Nangarhar Province delegate Safia Sediqi, as a fourth deputy chairperson. "On the first day [of the Constitutional Loya Jirga], we lost all hope for women," Saira Sarif, a female delegate from Khost Province, said upon hearing Mojadeddi's comments, according to the daily. AT

...LEAVING FEMALE DELEGATES FEELING DISENFRANCHISED
Female delegates to the Constitutional Loya Jirga say they are worried that their male colleagues are trying to deny them leadership positions in the process, the BBC reported on 16 December. A female delegate from Kabul Province identified as Nadera said there are "100 women against 400 men" at the Constitutional Loya Jirga despite the fact that females "represent more than 50 percent of Afghan society." Even after Sediqi's appointment, many female delegates said they are being treated like second-class citizens, according to the BBC. (For more on women's rights in the draft Afghan constitution, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 13 November 2003). AT

AFGHAN LEADER CONGRATULATES U.S. ON CAPTURE OF HUSSEIN...
Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA) Chairman Hamid Karzai sent a congratulatory note to U.S. President George W. Bush on 15 December on the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Bakhtar news agency reported. Karzai said the "capture of despotic Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein will help consolidate peace and stability in Iraq and the world and [will] give innocent Iraqis their rights." AT

...WHILE HIS SPOKESMAN SAYS IT 'OVERSHADOWED' LANDMARK DAY FOR AFGHANS
Chairman Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, said on 15 December that while Afghanistan is pleased with Hussein's capture, Afghans feel that "Iraq has always overshadowed" them in a "kind of unfair" manner, Reuters reported. Ludin referred to the opening of the Constitutional Loya Jirga on 14 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003) as one of Afghanistan's "greatest national days." He added that the constitutional assembly would have topped world news headlines, but that "suddenly changed" with Hussein's capture. Ludin stressed that Hussein's arrest is a "positive development" that sends a message to Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who are presumably still in hiding. Kabul supported the U.S.-led intervention to oust Hussein, but many Afghans remain concerned that the situation in Iraq has shifted international attention from their own war-torn country. AT

FIRST PHASE OF KABUL-KANDAHAR HIGHWAY PROJECT DECLARED OVER
ATA Chairman Karzai attended a ceremony southwest of Kabul on 15 December to mark completion of the first phase of the reconstruction of the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Once the reconstruction project is completed, his country at the "heart of Asia should be the unifying center among other countries," Karzai told attendees in the Durrani District of Wardak Province. Karzai expressed his gratitude to President Bush for fulfilling his promise to rebuild the highway. Bush had pledged to complete the entire project by the end of this year. Some 289 kilometers of the 480-kilometer highway have been reconstructed so far, with work on the second phase beginning within a month's time and expected to take 10 months to complete, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Reconstruction work began in November 2002 with funding and other aid from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and India (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 November 2002). While work completed so far has cut travel time between Kabul and Kandahar from 24 hours to five hours, security remains a major problem along the route. AT

RECORD NUMBER OF CANDIDATES REGISTER FOR IRAN'S PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION
Deputy Interior Minister Morteza Moballegh, who heads the State Election Headquarters, announced on 15 December that 959 people have already registered as candidates for the seventh parliamentary election that is scheduled for 20 February, state television and IRNA reported. Moballegh said this is 100 more than in previous elections. He added that candidates for the Assembly of Experts would be elected in Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, Hormozgan, and Zanjan provinces. Candidates in these races can register between 24 and 30 December. BS

IRAN GETS INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY MINISTRY
The Tehran press reported on 13 December that the Guardians Council has approved parliamentary legislation to change the name of the Ministry of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone to the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, IRNA reported. Deputy Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Minister Said Shafei was quoted as saying the change reflects the ministry's effort to modernize Iran's information technology and communications capabilities. The Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Ministry's public-relations office said its new responsibilities will include the development of policies for Iran's IT sector and supervising the telephone and mail networks. Moreover, the new ministry will create, maintain, and exploit post and telecommunications networks, manage the country's communications frequencies, and develop regulations for satellite frequencies. BS

IRANIAN WOMEN URGED TO MARRY YOUNGER MEN
The Tehran governor-general's adviser for women's affairs, Rezvan Nayyeri, has recommended that Iranian women marry younger men, "Iran Daily" reported on 16 December. On average, she said, single females in the population are five years older than single males. "Most Iranian girls hold higher education degrees and are not willing to marry uneducated or younger men," she said. If women married younger men, Nayyeri said, the country's marriage crisis would be averted. BS

TEHRAN WANTS SADDAM HUSSEIN TRIED BY INTERNATIONAL COURT
Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 15 December that an international tribunal should investigate the crimes of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, state television and IRNA reported. Ramezanzadeh added that Tehran is preparing to submit a criminal complaint against Hussein, Reuters reported. Explaining the dictator's fall, Ramezanzadeh said, "Saddam's humiliating surrender shows that if anyone does not yield to his own nation he must surrender to foreign powers in a humiliating fashion." BS

U.S. OFFICIALS CONTEMPLATE SADDAM TRIAL...
U.S. President George W. Bush told a 15 December news conference that the United States and Iraq will organize former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's trial but Iraqis will decide whether he should face possible execution, Reuters reported. The United Kingdom has said it will not take part in any trial that could lead to the death penalty (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 15 December 2003). Iran and some human rights groups have said Hussein should be tried by an international court, rather than by Iraqis under a U.S.-led occupation. Leading members of the Iraqi Governing Council have said they expect an "international presence" at any tribunal, according to Dara Nuredin, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and the chairman of its legal committee. However, an unnamed senior U.S. official has made it clear that the former Iraqi leader is not likely to be handed over for trial in the near future, and has said that any trial would have to await the conclusion of Hussein's extensive questioning by occupation forces. The International Committee of the Red Cross says its hopes the U.S. military allows it to visit Hussein so that it can check on his conditions under the protocols of the Geneva Conventions. MH

...WHILE UN HOPES FOR RECONCILIATION IN IRAQ
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a fair and open trial for Hussein and said the UN remains opposed to the death penalty, the UN News Service reported on 15 December. Annan expressed his concern that any court set up to try Hussein must meet basic international standards, including respect for international humanitarian law. He said he hopes the capture and coming trial of Hussein will help Iraq move ahead with the transition period and also accelerate the process of reconciliation and attempts to establish a provisional Iraqi government that is inclusive and transparent. Annan emphasized that "all those responsible for these crimes should be brought to account." When asked about the possible return of the UN to Iraq, the secretary-general replied, according to the UN News Service, "The only thing that will hasten the UN's return is the establishment of a secure environment; and if the capture of Saddam Hussein leads to that development, it will be helpful." MH

INTELLIGENCE FROM HUSSEIN SAID TO BE LEADING TO MORE ARRESTS
The U.S. military immediately began exploiting Hussein's arrest by using new information to capture several top figures of his old government and uncover rebel cells in the capital, AP reported on 15 December, citing U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Hertling. By using a cache of new intelligence found in Hussein's hiding place, AP reported, teams have already captured one unidentified high-ranking former regime figure who has reportedly provided information on the location of others. Hertling said the new intelligence has also given the military a more comprehensive picture of the anti-occupation network in Baghdad, and has confirmed the existence of suspected cells of militants. The news agency reported that more raids are expected as the United States gains more information from Hussein himself. Hertling said U.S. interrogators have concluded that Hussein was still playing a role in leading anti-U.S. attacks, although the degree of his involvement remains uncertain. U.S. military officials said they found no communications equipment, maps, or other evidence of a makeshift command center in Hussein's hiding place. MH

U.S. ENVOY TRAVELS TO EUROPE FOR TALKS ON IRAQI DEBT
U.S. special envoy James Baker met with Iraqi officials including Iraqi central-bank Governor Sinan Muhammad Rida al-Shibibi and Finance Minister Kamil al-Kaylani in Paris on 16 December before a scheduled meeting with French President Jacques Chirac to discuss debt relief for Iraq, Reuters reported the same day. Baker is also expected to meet with British, German, Italian, and Russian leaders during his trip. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said on 15 December that the Paris Club of creditor countries might work out a debt-relief deal for Iraq in 2004. Debt incurred by the former Iraqi regime is estimated at around $120 billion, some $40 billion of which is owed to the 19 member states of the Paris Club, according to Reuters. Iraq reportedly owes between $2 billion and $8 billion to Germany, $12 billion to Russia, and $8 billion to France (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 24 October 2003). KR

U.S. FORCES REPORT REPELLING AMBUSH, KILLING 11 IRAQI ATTACKERS
U.S. forces killed 11 Iraqi militants who were attempting to ambush U.S. troops in the town of Samarra, approximately 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, on 15 December, according to a 16 December statement posted on the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) website (http://www.centcom.mil). "Task Force Ironhorse soldiers traveling through the city of Samarra repelled a complex ambush...and killed 11 attackers without suffering any coalition casualties," the statement said. The militants released a flock of pigeons to signal approaching U.S. forces, who were then attacked by two men on a motorcycle firing automatic weapons near schoolchildren, according to CENTCOM. "Soldiers, in consideration of the children and a nearby mosque, employed snipers to target the attackers and successfully suppressed the enemy's ability to inflict damage," causing the attackers to flee, CENTCOM reported. A short distance further, militants hiding in an overgrown field fired automatic weapons at U.S. forces and simultaneously detonated an improvised explosive device to the south of the patrol. "The patrol was then inundated by fire," including rocket-propelled grenades from the west, and mortar fire from the north," according to CENTCOM. Additional U.S. forces reportedly responded with backup support and fought through the ambush. KR

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