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Newsline - December 23, 2003


PUTIN OFFERS TO WRITE OFF TWO-THIRDS OF IRAQ'S DEBT...
President Vladimir Putin told a delegation of Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) members in Moscow on 22 December that Russia is ready to write off a significant chunk of Iraq's $8 billion debt, Russian and Western media reported. Putin told the delegation he hopes Iraq's "new leadership" will have good relations with Russia, which, he said, is ready to invest as much as $4 billion in Iraq. Putin said Russia is willing to write off 65 percent of Iraq's debt, which would come to $5.2 billion, RBK quoted IGC member Samir Shakir Mahmud as saying. The delegation's head, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who currently holds the IGC's rotating presidency, called the Russian offer a "very generous promise," Interfax reported. A third delegation and IGC member, Jalal Talabani, added that the Russian side also said it is ready to reconsider the rest of Iraq's debt if Russian companies get contracts in Iraq. Al-Hakim signaled that this is likely, declaring that Iraq "is open for all Russian companies to carry out their activities." JB

...AS IRAQI LEADERS MEET LUKOIL'S PRESIDENT...
IGC President al-Hakim also met on 22 December with LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov to discuss the oil giant's participation in developing Iraq's West Qurna-2 oil field, RBK reported, citing LUKoil's press service. LUKoil signed an agreement to develop the field with deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government in 1997, but the project never got off the ground because of U.N. sanctions against Iraq. Al-Hakim said the contract should be discussed "anew" and that Iraq has nothing against LUKoil's participation in the field's development. Alekperov said LUKoil will soon begin talks with Iraq's Oil Ministry, and the talks will "be successful." Energy Minister Igor Yusufov said on 22 December that the $4 billion of potential Russian investment in Iraq mentioned by President Putin referred to the funds that LUKoil and the Zarubezhneft state oil company are ready to put into developing West Kurna-2, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 23 December. JB

...AND RUSSIAN-IRAQI RELATIONS SEEM BACK ON TRACK
The IGC delegation in Moscow was at pains to stress its interest in Russian investment despite Russia's previously close relations with former Iraqi President Hussein and the recent decision by the United States to bar companies from countries that opposed the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq -- including France, Germany and Russia -- from bidding for U.S.-funded reconstruction contracts in Iraq. "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 23 December that Russian and Western journalists covering the visit were surprised by the degree to which "the members of the Iraqi delegation have made up their minds to replace American anger toward Russia with their favor." IGC member Talabani was explicit on this score, telling the newspaper, "We consider Russia a friend of Iraq and do not think that Russians are friends of Saddam Hussein." He also said that President Putin "never collaborated personally with Saddam Hussein's regime." IGC President al-Hakim told ITAR-TASS that the international community "should take a more active part in rebuilding Iraq." JB

STRANGE PROCEEDINGS AT FORMER YUKOS CEO'S BAIL HEARING...
Moscow's Basmannyi Raion Court on 22 December called a one-day recess in its closed hearing to decide whether former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii should be granted bail or kept in pretrial detention for three more months, Ekho Moskvy reported on 22 December. According to Khodorkovskii's lawyer, Genrikh Padva, Prosecutor Valerii Lakhtin announced during the hearing that the investigation of Khodorkovskii has been extended until 30 March. However, after Khodorkovskii's lawyers asked for documents showing that the investigation had been extended, Lakhtin said he felt ill and asked for a recess. The judge in the case, Andrei Rasnovskii, started off the hearing by agreeing to a prosecution motion to have the proceedings moved to Khodorkovskii's jail cell because bringing him to the court would putatively create a security threat. Rasnovskii said later, however, that the information about a security threat had not been confirmed and that the hearing could take place at the Basmannyi Raion Court, "The Moscow Times" reported on 23 December. JB

...AS AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL CITES POSSIBLE POLITICAL MOTIVES FOR HIS ARREST
Former Yukos head Khodorkovskii was brought to his bail hearing at the Basmannyi Raion Court on 22 December in an armored car and handcuffs, and was accompanied into the building by armed police, Russian media reported. Interfax described him as looking pale and appearing as if he had lost significant weight. A small group of supporters outside the courthouse held placards reading "Free Khodorkovskii," Ren-TV reported on 22 December. Meanwhile, veteran human rights campaigner and former State Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalev told Ekho Moskvy on 22 December that he is satisfied by the response he received from Amnesty International to an appeal he and four other Soviet-era political prisoners sent in November, asking the organization to declare Khodorkovskii a political prisoner. According to Kovalev, the London-based human rights group responded that while it could not say with certainty that Khodorkovskii was arrested for his political activity, his arrest could have been connected to such work. Along with Kovalev, the November appeal to Amnesty International was signed by Yelena Bonner, Vladimir Bukovskii, Nataliya Gorbanevskaya, and Eduard Kuznetsov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2003). JB

COMMUNISTS, LDPR TO CONSIDER OUTSIDERS FOR PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE...
The Communist Party is reportedly divided between those who support party leader Gennadii Zyuganov as the Communist candidate in the 14 March presidential election, those who wish to nominate a new person in light of the party's poor showing in the 7 December State Duma elections, and those who want the party to boycott the race, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 23 December. Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Sergei Potapov said that the question of the party's participation in the election might not be resolved at the 25 December party congress. According to Potapov, the party might support a leftist candidate nominated by a citizens' group, such as former Krasnodar Krai Governor Nikolai Kondratenko or State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov. Kondratenko and Kharitonov were Nos. 2 and 3 on the party's party list. Alternatively, unidentified party sources told the daily that other possible candidates are Duma Deputy Sergei Reshulskii, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and Duma Deputy Zhores Alferov, Norilsk Mayor-elect Valerii Melnikov, and lawyer Yurii Ivanov. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) also has not yet decided on a candidate. Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii said on 22 December that the LDPR will definitely participate in the election, although it might not nominate its own candidate. JAC

...AS BEREZOVSKII OFFERS TO BACK PUTIN CHALLENGER
In an interview with the British daily "The Independent" on 22 December, self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii said he is willing to provide financial backing to an opposition candidate in the March presidential race. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy, Berezovskii said he would support anyone "who can become a real opponent" for President Putin and will "stand tall without fear of the [Federal Security Service], the prosecutor's office, or our sly and ultimately mendacious president." JAC

PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY'S FAVORITE BECOMES GOVERNOR OF KIROV...
Former State Duma Deputy Nikolai Shaklein (Russian Regions) on 21 December won a second-round gubernatorial election in Kirov Oblast, Russian media reported on 22 December. Shaklein received 62.7 percent of the vote, compared with 26.3 percent for businessman Oleg Valenchuk, ITAR-TASS reported. Incumbent Governor Vladimir Sergeenkov was prohibited from seeking a third term by local law. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 22 December, Shaklein was considered the favorite in the race since the first round, in part because of the active support he received from presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko. However, Shaklein's position was somewhat weakened by a campaign by local businessman Georgii Briling, who was disqualified from running just days before the first round. Briling distributed leaflets calling on voters to vote against all candidates and alleging links between Shaklein and Kirienko's "economic mafia." JAC

...AS ANOTHER NORILSK NICKEL EXECUTIVE BECOMES A GOVERNOR
State Sports Committee Deputy Chairman Dmitrii Zelenin won the second round gubernatorial election in Tver Oblast on 21 December, ITAR-TASS reported on 22 December. Zelenin won 57.4 percent of the vote, compared with 33.9 percent for former Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov. Incumbent Governor Vladimir Platov failed to make it past the first round. Zelenin, a former top manager of Norilsk Nickel, was supported by Unified Russia. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 22 December, Platov subtly endorsed Zelenin after the first round by giving an interview with a local newspaper in which he said it was time for a "new generation of young energetic managers who are supported by Unified Russia" to take power. Zelenin is 41, and Zubov is 47, Regnum reported. JAC

YEKATERINBURG MAYOR WINS THIRD TERM
Incumbent Yekaterinburg Mayor Arkadii Chernetskii won the second-round mayoral election in the city on 21 December, Russian media reported on 22 December. Chernetskii won 54.05 percent of the vote, compared with 38.89 percent for deputy head of the oblast administration Yurii Osintsev. Osintsev was supported by Unified Russia and Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel, a bitter foe of Chernetskii's. City election commission head Igor Vydrin told ITAR-TASS on 21 December that the race was marked by numerous violations of election law, including attempts to bribe voters. According to Novyi region, local police arrested some people who were reportedly engaged in black public relations. According to "Vremya novostei" on 23 December, bribes of 150-200 rubles ($5-$7) were being offered by people campaigning for each of the two candidates. The daily also noted that the media holding controlled by the mayor, which includes a local television station, considerably helped Chernetskii's cause. JAC

RIA-NOVOSTI TO WORK ON POLISHING RUSSIA'S IMAGE ABROAD
Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has signed a decree altering the organizational and legal status of RIA-Novosti, lenta.ru reported on 22 December. According to the decree, RIA-Novosti is now under the jurisdiction of the Media Ministry. Previously, both RIA-Novosti and ITAR-TASS were under the administration of All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) head Oleg Dobrodeev. "Izvestiya" reported the same day that RIA-Novosti will help the ministry "form and strengthen a positive image of Russia abroad." According to the daily, some in VGTRK believe the two state news agencies were put in the "senseless" position of competing with one another. Media Minister Mikhail Lesin told the daily that the transfer of RIA-Novosti to the Media Ministry is "the first step in reform of the state mass media." JAC

ARMENIAN COALITION GOVERNMENT 'WILL NOT ADMIT' NEW MEMBERS
Gegham Manukian, a senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), one of the two junior partners in the three-party coalition government, has rejected media reports that the coalition is about to admit new members, Noyan Tapan reported on 23 December. The newspaper "Haykakan zhamanak" speculated on 19 December that the parliamentary United Labor Party and the People's Deputy group of independent legislators have been invited to suggest ministerial candidates. President Robert Kocharian is reported to have criticized both the HHD and Orinats Yerkir during a meeting with those parties' leaders on 13 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2003). LF

ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PARLIAMENTARIANS DISCUSS KARABAKH CONFLICT...
Meeting in Scotland on 16-20 December, parliamentary delegations from Armenia and Azerbaijan addressed six issues related to the unresolved Karabakh conflict, Turan and Arminfo reported on 22 December. Armenian parliament deputy chairman Tigran Torosian listed those issues at a press conference in Yerevan on 22 December as the future status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, the possibility of opening overland communications from Baku via Nagorno-Karabakh and Yerevan to Nakhichevan, bilateral diplomatic and economic relations, the return of refugees and displaced persons, and the territories adjacent to Karabakh that have been under Armenian control for the past decade. Torosian described the talks as "constructive." LF

...AS AZERBAIJANIS SCHEDULE PEACE MARCH
Meeting in Baku on 22 December, the Council of Elders of the Organization for the Liberation of Karabakh adopted a statement deploring the failure to achieve any progress in 2003 toward restoring Azerbaijani hegemony over Karabakh, Turan and zerkalo.az reported on 22 and 23 December, respectively. The council called on the Azerbaijani leadership to dispense with the mediation efforts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group and to demand that the international community pressure Armenia to withdraw from occupied Azerbaijani territory. The council vowed to launch a peace march to Karabakh on 8 May 2004 if these demands are not met. Also on 22 December, 15 separate organizations all claiming to represent the interests of Azerbaijanis who fled Armenia in late 1988 announced that they have disbanded and will align in a new Movement for the Liberation of Western Azerbaijan, zerkalo.az reported on 23 December. LF

OPPOSITIONIST ATTACKED IN ADJARIA
Opposition activist Levan Kacharava was attacked in Batumi on the morning of 22 December on his way to meet an OSCE representative by unknown persons who beat him and warned him to abandon politics, Georgian media reported. Kacharava traveled to Tbilisi for medical treatment after doctors in Adjaria refused to treat him, but vowed he will return to Adjaria. Georgian Minister of State Zurab Zhvania called on the Adjar leadership on 22 December to apprehend Kacharava's assailants and initiate criminal proceedings against them. Meanwhile on 20 December, Caucasus Press reported that a clandestine opposition television company plans to begin broadcasts in Adjaria as soon as the state of emergency in that autonomous republic is lifted. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES DISSATISFIED WITH AIRTIME ALLOCATION
Several candidates in the 4 January presidential election complained on 22 December to the Central Election Commission in connection with the allocation of airtime to present their election programs on the first channel of Georgian State Television, Caucasus Press reported. The channel's management has ruled that candidates may have two hours of airtime from 3:15 p.m. until 5:15 p.m. local time. The candidates protest that no one watches television in mid-afternoon, and have demanded airtime at 10:00 p.m. LF

REVISION OF GEORGIAN VOTER LISTS BEHIND SCHEDULE
Georgia's Central Election Commission has extended the deadline for preliminary voter registration from 21 to 27 December, Caucasus Press reported on 22 December. Voter lists used during the disputed 2 November parliamentary election contained a total of 3,078,593 names. As of 21 December, only 580,000 people had undergone the preliminary registration procedure, which is intended to ensure that the names of all people who are entitled to vote are included on voter lists. LF

GEORGIA ANNOUNCES TAX REFORM
Georgian Minister of State Zhvania told journalists in Tbilisi on 22 December that as of 1 January owners of land plots of less than 20 hectares will no longer be liable to pay land tax, ITAR-TASS reported. He said more than 1 million small farmers will benefit from that move. The road tax for car owners and the tax on business activity will be abolished as of 1 January, according to rustavi2.com. Zhvania also announced that a new differentiated wealth tax will be imposed as of 1 July 2004 targeting owners of luxury homes and automobiles, but he failed to specify how liability for that tax will be assessed. LF

KAZAKH GAS FIRM LAUNCHES MEDIA GROUP
Despite the protests of some politicians and journalists, the Kazakh state gas firm KazMunaiGaz has launched a joint television channel, NTV-Kazakhstan, with the Russian network NTV (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2003), Kazinform reported on 19 December. NTV has a 20 percent share in the station and the Rayan Media Group, a subsidiary of KazMunaiGaz, owns the rest. NTV has been available to viewers in Kazakhstan for seven years via cable and as rebroadcasts by independent domestic stations. The new station will have to carry domestic material, in accord with a Kazakh law on languages that requires 50 percent of broadcasting be in the Kazakh language. The new station has been criticized on the grounds that a state-owned energy company should not be involved in the media field, and Kazakh tax money should be spent promoting domestic broadcasting. NTV is owned by Russian state-controlled natural-gas giant Gazprom. BB

KAZAKHSTAN INCREASES GRAIN EXPORTS TO 5.7 MILLION TONS
Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry has released figures on the country's grain exports from January through mid-December 2003, showing that the country increased its export volume to 5,629,900 tons from 4,209,000 tons in 2002, centrasia.ru reported on 22 December, citing the Kazakh weekly "Panorama," No. 49. Forty countries purchased Kazakh grain this year, up from 37 in 2002. The report noted that drought in grain-growing regions of Ukraine and Russia prompted those countries to increase their purchases of Kazakh grain. Russia bought 726,000 tons this year, up from 278,000 tons in 2002. Ukraine bought 1,733,200 tons this year, up from 51,000 tons in 2002. Exports to Iran declined as a result of a new food program in that country. Likewise, exports to the neighboring countries of Central Asia fell because of a doubling of the price of Kazakh wheat from $55-$65 a ton in 2002 to $110-$130 in 2003. BB

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT RAISES ISSUE OF ABDUCTED MULLAH
In the process of examining cases of Uzbek law enforcement officials allegedly abducting Kyrgyz citizens (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003), the lower house of the Kyrgyz parliament has raised the issue of Sadykjan Rakhmanov, a mullah in the southern Kyrgyz town of Uzgen, who was abducted in September 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September, 20 October, and 19 November 2003), Deutsche Welle reported on 22 December. Kyrgyz officials have said evidence indicates that Rakhmanov was abducted by law enforcement officials from Uzbekistan's Namangan Oblast, but the Kyrgyz have received no cooperation from the Uzbek side in locating the missing mullah. Representatives of the Kyrgyz National Security Committee, Interior Ministry, and the Prosecutor-General's Office testified to the parliament about the case. A witness from the Committee for the Defense of Muslims' Rights asserted that Rakhmanov is being held in a pretrial-detention facility in Tashkent. According to Kyrgyz human rights activists, more than 100 citizens of Kyrgyzstan have been abducted by Uzbek law enforcement officers and are now in prison in Uzbekistan, mostly on charges of religious extremism. BB

KYRGYZ ENERGY FIRM SIGNS LONG-TERM CONTRACT FOR DELIVERIES TO RUSSIA
The Kyrgyz electricity firm Electric Stations has signed a long-term contract with Russia's Inter EES Rossii for delivery of Kyrgyz electric power to the Russian market, RIA-Novosti reported on 22 December. The contract requires the delivery of 1.5 billion kilowatt-hours per year until 2009. Previously, Kyrgyzstan's main foreign customers for electricity were Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Exports to Russia began in September. The Kyrgyz government is discussing export levels with Tajikistan, and both Kazakhstan and China have expressed interest in buying Kyrgyz power. BB

TAJIKISTAN SIGNS AGREEMENT WITH IRAN ON COMPLETION OF HYDROPOWER PLANT
An Iranian delegation led by Economy and Finance Minister Tahmasb Mazaheri arrived in Dushanbe on 19 December for the signing of a memorandum of understanding on completing construction of the Sangtuda hydroelectric plant, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 22 December. The Sangtuda plant, part of an ambitious Soviet-era hydroelectric scheme, was left half-finished when the USSR collapsed. Preliminary documents on Iranian participation in completing the plant were signed this summer. Under the memorandum of understanding, Iran will take charge of coordinating the activities of a consortium that is in process of being formed to complete the project. BB

BELARUSIAN COMMUNISTS APPROVE PLATFORM FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
The central committee of the Belarusian Party of Communists (PKB) approved a draft platform on 21 December for the country's 2004 parliamentary elections, Belapan reported. The PKB defines its main goals as promoting real growth in GDP, raising pensions and wages, reducing unemployment and inflation, reforming the housing sector, preserving and developing the education and health systems, ending what it describes as the demographic crisis, protecting the environment, fighting crime and corruption, and improving Belarus's international image. The document, "Do, Rather Than Promise," also states that the country's economic problems cannot be tackled without political reform to ensure the unconditional rule of law, limits on presidential powers, legislative and judiciary independence, free and fair elections, and guarantees on rights and civil liberties. AM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SIGNS POLITICAL-FINANCE BILL INTO LAW
President Leonid Kuchma signed a bill into law on 22 December that introduces the state funding of political parties' activities and parliamentary campaigns, Interfax reported, quoting the president's press office. State-funded activities may not be linked to the party's participation in elections, but the law also provides for reimbursing campaign expenses for parties that reach the 4 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. The annual allocations for political parties under the new law are defined as 1 percent of the average minimum wage multiplied by the number of registered votes in the most recent regular parliamentary elections. The law will come into force on 1 January 2005. AM

ESTONIAN COURT REINSTATES TAX BOARD DIRECTOR
The Tallinn Administrative Court upheld a complaint by former Tax Board Director Aivar Soerd and declared his dismissal for alleged incompetence null and void on 22 December, BNS reported. The court ruled that Soerd must be allowed to return to his post and that he be paid back wages. Former Finance Minister Tonis Palts suspended Soerd in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2003) and fired him in September, charging that he was not qualified for the job. Palts subsequently named Customs Board Director Aivar Rehe as Soerd's replacement and called for the merger of the Tax and the Customs boards. Soerd said he planned to return to work on 23 December, but expressed regret that all his former deputies have either left or are planning to leave their posts. It is unclear how long Soerd will remain director; parliament approved a bill on 17 December laying the foundation for the four-phase merger of the two boards, beginning on 1 January. SG

ARBITRATION COURT BACKS SWEDISH-OWNED POWER COMPANY IN DISPUTE WITH LATVIAN STATE
The Stockholm International Court of Arbitration has ruled that the state of Latvia must pay 1.6 million lats ($2.96 million) in compensation plus legal costs of "a couple hundred-thousand lats" to the Swedish owner of the Windau power plant in Latvia, BNS reported on 22 December. The decision effectively enforces the terms of a 1997 contract on future power supplies between Latvian state-owned power company Latvenergo and Windau, which is controlled by Nycomb Synergetics Technology (Nycomb). At the time of that contract, the Latvian state compelled Latvenergo to pay small producers like Windau a considerably higher rate for energy supplies. The arbitration court ordered Latvenergo to pay the higher rate to Windau until September 2007, resulting in an estimated 5 million lats in additional costs. Both sides have until 10 January to appeal the ruling. "I don't think this is a case that should be appealed, as the laws in the matter were rather unclear and changed frequently," Latvian Justice Minister Aivars Aksenoks said. Economy Minister Juris Lujans, who had expressed certainty that Latvia would win the dispute, said Latvia will seek avenues to appeal the 80-page decision. SG

LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT FORMS IMPEACHMENT COMMISSION
Lawmakers approved on 22 December in an 86-19 vote with 11 abstentions the 12-member makeup of an ad hoc commission for impeachment of President Rolandas Paksas, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. The commission includes six parliamentary deputies: Social Democrats Alfonsas Macaitis and Julius Sabatauskas; Liberal-Centrists Raimondas Sukys and Gintaras Steponavicius; Social Liberal Vaclovas Karbauskis; and Conservative Jurgis Razma. The other six commission members are lawyers chosen by drawing lots from among candidates proposed by the Courts' Council and the Prosecutor-General's Office. The commission was instructed to present its conclusions to parliament on 13 February. On 23 December, lawmakers elected 77-year old Courts' Council nominee Pranciskus Zalkauskas, a Supreme Court consultant who worked as a Supreme Court judge for 35 years, to chair the commission. Sabatauskas was elected as deputy chairman. SG

POLISH PRESIDENT VISITS TROOPS IN IRAQ
President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski, and National Security Bureau chief Marek Siwiec visited the Polish military contingent in south-central Iraq on 22 December, Polish media reported. Kwasniewski conveyed holiday greetings from Poland, thanked the troops for their mission and courage, and added that Poland is serving the right cause with its presence in Iraq. Kwasniewski also told a press conference that ousted leader Saddam Hussein should be tried by Iraqis because "they have the right to assess the scope of Saddam's crime," adding that international observers are necessary to ensure fairness. AM

POLISH PREMIER URGES LAWMAKERS TO MAINTAIN TOUGH STANCE ON EU CONSTITUTION
Prime Minister Leszek Miller told representatives of the Sejm caucuses on 21 December that maintaining agreement among Polish political forces regarding the draft European constitution is the most important goal in the wake of the failed Brussels summit, PAP reported. Poland, along with Spain, battled at the 12-13 December summit to preserve the voting system stipulated in the 2000 Treaty of Nice (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2003). The head of the Law and Justice (PiS) caucus, Ludwik Dorn, said the unity among Polish politicians was Poland's trump card in Brussels. Now is the time to consider Poland's further strategy in negotiations on the EU constitution, he added. AM

SLOVAK PREMIER RECOMMENDS IGNORING POSSIBLE REFERENDUM ON EARLY ELECTIONS
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said on 21 December on Slovak Television that citizens should simply ignore a referendum on early elections if one is held, TASR reported. The Slovak Trade Unions Confederation's (KOZ) petition drive has gathered more than the required 350,000 signatures to force a nonbinding referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2003). Dzurinda called the demand for an early ballot "unfair," as the constitution stipulates that the cabinet's term is four years. Dzurinda suggested that the unions group is exploiting unpopular but necessary budget cuts imposed by the government just one year into its mandate. MS

SLOVAK RADIO DIRECTOR FILES SUIT AGAINST ANTICORRUPTION CHIEF
Slovak Radio Director Jaroslav Reznik filed a lawsuit on 22 December against Jan Hrubala, who heads the government's anticorruption department, CTK reported. Reznik said he is suing Hrubala for abuse of office and libel. Hrubala filed a lawsuit against Reznik last week, after the Supreme Audit Office (NKU) implicated Reznik in a dubious rental deal that adversely affected Slovak Radio (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2003). Reznik rejected the accusations and said he did nothing improper. He said on 22 December that the law prescribes no minimum rental rate, that the premises were in poor condition, and that he always consulted real-estate companies before signing the rental agreements. MS

HUNGARIAN PRESIDENT ASKS CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO REVIEW CONTROVERSIAL BILLS
Two bills approved recently by the Hungarian parliament were sent by President Ferenc Madl to the Constitutional Court on 22 December, Hungarian media reported. Madl wants the court's opinion of recent legislation aimed at unseating Chairman Karoly Szasz from atop the financial watchdog PSZAF and of a bill that would stiffen laws against hate speech (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November and 16 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2003, respectively). Constitutional Court President Andras Hollo said the court will give high priority to reviewing the bill on the reorganization of PSZAF, adding that he does not believe personnel matters should be handled through new legislation. Sports Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said the cabinet was dismayed by news of Madl's PSZAF challenge. The junior coalition Free Democrats' chairman, Gabor Kuncze, welcomed Madl's decision on the hate-speech bill, saying the court must now clarify whether freedom of opinion may be curtailed by parliament. Opposition FIDESZ parliamentary deputy Robert Repassy said Madl's decision is justified because the bill on hate speech restricts freedom of opinion through the Penal Code, rather than leaving matters to be adjudicated by courts on the basis of the Civil Code. MS

NEW CROATIAN PARLIAMENT ELECTS SPEAKER
The newly elected parliament met for its first session on 22 December and elected Vladimir Seks of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) as parliamentary speaker, "Vjesnik" reported. Luka Bebic and Darko Milinovic (both HDZ) were elected deputy speakers, along with Mato Arlovic of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Vesna Pusic of the Croatian People's Party (HNS). Parliament also approved Prime Minister-designate Ivo Sanader's proposal to reduce the number of government ministries from 19 to 14 as a first step toward streamlining the state administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 December 2003). UB

CROATIAN PRESIDENT SETS TASKS FOR NEW GOVERNMENT
President Stipe Mesic said on 22 December that the government's primary goals must include reforms of the state administration and the army, the finalization of judicial reform, and creating new jobs, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Commenting on Sanader's proposed reduction in the number of ministries (see item above), Mesic said state spending must be reduced as well. Mesic added that the government's first challenges will be the handover of indictees to the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal, the return of Serbian refugees, and the rebuilding of destroyed homes regardless of their owners' nationality. UB

SFOR ARRESTS TERROR SUSPECT IN BOSNIA
SFOR troops have arrested an Algerian citizen suspected of "engaging in activities that threaten the safety and security" in the town of Travnik, the "Southeast European Times" reported on 22 December. The 31-year-old suspect reportedly fought in the Bosnian civil war and later married a Bosnian woman, thus gaining Bosnian citizenship. UB

KOSOVAR PARLIAMENT PROTESTS BELGRADE'S PLAN FOR POLLING BOOTHS...
Representatives of the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosova's parliament passed a resolution on 22 December condemning Belgrade's plans to set up polling stations for Serbia's 28 December parliamentary elections in the internationally administered province, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kosovar legislators called on the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) to ban such polling stations, whose presence could create tensions in Kosova and underscore Belgrade's territorial claims to the province. Kosovar Serb legislators of the Povratak (Return) coalition walked out of the parliament to protest the resolution, arguing that the Kosovar parliament has no right to pass such a declaration, Tanjug reported. UB

...PROMPTING UNMIK TO STEP IN
UNMIK, which has the final say on key legal issues in the internationally administered province, ruled on 22 December that Kosova's citizens have the right to participate in Serbia's parliamentary elections slated for 28 December, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kosova is still nominally part of Serbia. UB

MACEDONIAN LEADERS FAIL TO AGREE ON REDISTRICTING
Macedonia's leading political figures -- including Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski and opposition leaders -- met under the auspices of President Boris Trajkovski on 22 December to discuss disagreements over government plans to reduce the number of administrative districts as part of its decentralization efforts, "Utrinski vesnik" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October, 13 November, and 12, 18, and 19 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 February 2003). As the politicians failed to overcome their disagreements, they vowed to continue the redistricting discussion on an expert level. UB

LAST 'VICTIM' OF ROMANIA'S REVOLUTION CREMATED IN BUCHAREST...
Elena Stanculescu, wife of former Romanian Defense Minister Victor Athanasie Stanculescu, was cremated on 22 December in Bucharest in a ceremony attended by family members, Antena 1 commercial television reported. The cremation took place on the day that Romania marked 14 years since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu's communist regime. Elena Stanculescu committed suicide on 20 December, jumping from the second floor of the Bucharest house in which she and her husband lived. She left behind a note saying she was "disgusted" with "all those who would not be where they are now if it were not for Stanculescu." General Stanculescu feigned a broken leg to avoid carrying out Ceausescu's orders to shoot at demonstrators in Bucharest. He previously commanded troops who fired at demonstrators in Timisoara and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for that act; former Prosecutor-General Tanase Joita appealed the sentence. Stanculescu was charged with corruption in a 1990 deal involving military-communication equipment, although that offense came under the statute of limitation. Stanculescu was Romania's defense minister in 1990-91. MS

...AS PRESIDENT ILIESCU DEPLORES HATRED
President Ion Iliescu described Elena Stanculescu as "a victim" who "lived through a nightmare" during her husband's ordeal, Mediafax reported. "I cannot comprehend where all this hatred stems from," he said. Iliescu also said General Stanculescu "was meritorious" during the 1989 revolution. MS

ROMANIAN RULING PARTY OFFICIAL WANTS CONTROVERSIAL BISHOP'S CITIZENSHIP REVOKED
Adrian Vlad Casunean, chairman of the ruling Social Democratic Party's Covasna branch, said on 22 December that authorities should revoke the Romanian citizenship of Reformed Bishop Laszlo Toekes, Mediafax reported. Casunean described Toekes as an "irredentist" who "defies Romania's [territorial] integrity and sovereignty in his irresponsible statements." Bishop Toekes, who sparked the 1989 Romanian uprising that began in Timisoara on 16 December, was recently elected chairman of the National Council of Transylvanian Hungarians (CNMT), which has demanded autonomy for the Hungarian ethnic minority in Transylvania (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003). MS

MOLDOVAN PREMIER CONTENT WITH 2003 ACHIEVEMENTS
Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev told a Chisinau television audience on 21 December that his cabinet can count a halt to economic decline, the eradication of wage arrears in the state sector, and consolidation of the country's energy security among its achievements in 2003, Infotag reported. Among the government's main failures, Tarlev listed the unresolved Transdniester conflict and the cabinet's failure to mobilize media in support of improving Moldova's foreign image. Tarlev said he is ready to acknowledge that his cabinet has not succeeded in thawing relations with international lenders, but he countered that credits negotiated by previous governments were unfavorable to Moldova. Tarlev added that the dialogue with international lenders is continuing and has recently taken a "constructive path." Tarlev said rumors about the cabinet's dismissal or resignation are unfounded. MS

PPCD LEADER NIXES MOLDOVA'S 'REGIONALIZATION' PLAN
Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca said on 22 December that the proposal for Moldova's division into six regions recently presented by a nongovernmental organization as a possible solution for settling the Transdniester conflict effectively entails federalization, Flux reported. Rosca said that although various federalization proposals were discredited, the regionalization proposal presented by the United European Moldova organization employs a different concept to promote the same purpose: eliminating Moldova's independence and its current constitutional structure. Rosca said that -- like the federalization plans -- the regionalization proposal envisages a new constitution, a referendum on that document, and new elections in February. Since the withdrawal of Russian troops is mentioned nowhere in the new proposal, Rosca said, one can assume that those elections would take place with Russian forces still stationed in Moldova. The PPCD leader also said the regionalization proposal transforms a "criminal" Tiraspol leadership into a negotiating partner on equal footing with Chisinau (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003). MS

RUSSIA WANTS TO OPEN TIRASPOL CONSULATE
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said on 22 December that his ministry considers the opening of a consulate in Tiraspol to be an important issue, Infotag reported. Yakovenko said that some 60,000 Russian citizens are permanent residents of Transdniester and the consulate would serve their interests. Moscow, he added, has repeatedly raised this issue with Chisinau, "but unfortunately, we have not yet received its consent." Last week, separatist leader Igor Smirnov said during a visit to Moscow that Tiraspol will do everything in its power to get Russia to open a consulate in the region. Smirnov said that "nearly 85,000 Russians live permanently" in Transdniester and added that "the figure might be two to three times as high." MS

MOLDOVAN NATIONAL BOLSHEVIKS WANT OSCE OUT OF THE COUNTRY
A handful of members and supporters of the Russian National Bolshevik Party -- which is outlawed in Moldova -- picketed the OSCE mission in Chisinau on 20 December to " protest the impertinent and non-constructive interference of the OSCE and other Euro-Atlantic structures and Western countries in the Transdniester conflict settlement," Infotag reported. Demonstrators shouted slogans such as "OSCE out of Moldova" and "'No' to Russian troop withdrawal." MS

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT URGES VISION FOR GOVERNMENT
Speaking on Darik Radio on 20 December, President Georgi Parvanov called on the Bulgarian government to review its achievements and shortcomings in the new year and to develop a vision for its economic and social policies, BTA reported. "I do not know what the government will suggest, but I aspire to gather a collective of scientists, pragmatics, and officials who will prepare such a vision in the early months of 2004," Parvanov said. He said the administration needs to be reinvigorated, but added that early elections would not help, as the country faces foreign-policy challenges such as NATO membership and EU accession. UB

BULGARIAN LEADERS FAIL TO AGREE OVER NUCLEAR POLICY
President Parvanov and Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski failed to reach agreement during a 22 December meeting on the future of the No. 3 and No. 4 blocks of the Kozloduy nuclear-power plant, bTV reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003). Parvanov has sought an extension of the useful lifespan of the blocks, while Saxecoburggotski has leaned toward compliance with EU demand that the blocks be decommissioned by 2006. Energy Minister Milko Kovachev on 22 December called on the government to decide which technology should be used for the country's second nuclear-power plant at Belene -- Russian VVER-1000 or the Canadian CANDU technology (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2002, 16 July and 1 October 2003). Kovachev noted that the Czech Republic has faced stiff opposition from neighboring Austria and elsewhere within the EU over its nuclear-power plant at Temelin, where Soviet-era designs were adapted to incorporate Western technology. UB

UKRAINE FACES CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES
The Verkhovna Rada was expected on 23 December to consider three political-reform bills that were drafted to introduce crucial amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution of 1996. According to a majority of Ukrainian observers, one bill, registered in the parliament under No. 3027-1 and authored by an ad hoc parliamentary commission (which included opposition activists Oleksandr Moroz and Anatoliy Matviyenko), stands no chance of being approved. The real parliamentary debate is expected to focus on bills No. 4105 (prepared by the presidential administration headed by Viktor Medvedchuk and preliminarily approved by Communist leader Petro Symonenko, therefore referred to as the Medvedchuk-Symonenko draft) and No. 4180 (prepared by a group of pro-presidential lawmakers, the so-called Havrysh draft).

The Medvedchuk-Symonenko and Havrysh bills propose that the president be elected by parliament instead of by direct ballot, but they differ in their suggested dates of implementation for such a move. The Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill wants the president to be elected by a universal ballot in October 2004 and to serve until a new president is elected by the Verkhovna Rada in 2006, within a month after the inauguration of a newly elected legislature (since the regular parliamentary election is expected by the end of March 2006, such an "interim president" would serve for some 18 months). The Havrysh bill proposes that the parliament elect the president already in October 2004, the current Verkhovna Rada's term be extended by one year, and a new president be elected again by lawmakers in 2007.

The Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill was reportedly supported by 292 lawmakers (300 votes are necessary to change the Ukrainian Constitution). Ukraine's Constitutional Court recently ruled that both bills conform to Articles 157 and 158 of the constitution, which set a number of general restrictions on constitutional amendments.

The procedure for amending the Ukrainian Constitution by the Verkhovna Rada comprises two steps. First, the amendments need to be approved "in the first reading" by a simple majority (at least 226 votes). Second, they must be approved by a two-thirds majority (at least 300 votes) at the legislature's next regular session. Thus, if the Verkhovna Rada wants to apply new rules to the October 2004 presidential election, it must endorse either the Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill or the Havrysh bill (or both of them, or a combination of the two) by at least 226 votes on 23 December, before its winter-holiday recess.

The mustering of 226 votes for the Medvedchuk-Symonenko draft by the pro-presidential parliamentary majority seems to be an easy task, since the Communist Party is essentially in favor of strengthening the parliamentary prerogatives at the expense of presidential ones. The Communists are offering their support for the constitutional reform in exchange for the introduction of a fully proportional, party-list system of parliamentary elections.

What else may change in Ukraine's political system apart from the way of electing the country's president if the Medvedchuk-Symonenko bill is adopted in its current form? The president's right to propose the entire Cabinet of Ministers will be limited to four officials: prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and head of the Security Service. The prime minister will propose all other cabinet members as well as the heads of state committees. The prime minister will also nominate all regional governors. The parliament will be given the right not only to approve cabinet members and other high-ranking officials, but also to dismiss them. The president will receive the right to dissolve the parliament if it fails to form a pro-government coalition within 30 days, form a cabinet within 60 days, elect a president within three months, or convene for more than 30 days during the ongoing session. A people's deputy may be stripped of his/her parliamentary mandate if he/she fails to participate in plenary sitting for more than 60 days, quits the caucus of the party that placed him/her on the ballot, or fails to suspend his/her salaried activity outside the parliament.

There is little doubt that the constitutional reform was primarily devised by the presidential administration either to prevent Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko -- the country's most popular, Western-oriented politician -- from becoming the president in 2004 or to limit his possible presidential term to a year and a half. The presidential administration is seemingly aware that none of the potential candidates from the "party of power" -- be it Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, or National Bank head Serhiy Tyhypko, for instance -- is able to beat Yushchenko in a nationwide presidential ballot.

On the other hand, President Leonid Kuchma and his aides turned out to be masters of backstage maneuvering when after the 2002 parliamentary election, which was won by Our Ukraine, they managed not only to form a fairly viable pro-government coalition without the Communists, but also to reduce the role of Yushchenko's bloc in parliament to that of political extras. Apparently, the presidential entourage expects that it will be able to retain its current leverage in the country through controlling the future parliament as well.

No less surprising than Kuchma's ingenuity in developing different schemes to diminish the political clout of his adversaries is Yushchenko's lack of a vision of what is he going to do in Ukrainian politics and with whom. To the disappointment of many in Ukraine, he failed to create a parliamentary coalition and run a government in 2002 following the victory in the parliamentary election. Now many fear that he is set to lose the fight for a full-fledged presidency.

One of his most natural potential allies, Yuliya Tymoshenko, is becoming more and more impatient and irritated by his reluctance to strike a cooperation deal with her bloc (possibly, Yushchenko is afraid that Tymoshenko's public image of an oligarch involved in dubious financial machinations may do him more harm than good). Another potential ally, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, has apparently received no reasonable proposal of cooperation from Yushchenko, since the Socialists seem to be generally in favor of the Medvedchuk-Symonenko constitutional-reform plan, even if some of them object to electing the president by parliament.

And judging by the hostile reception Yushchenko recently received in eastern Ukraine, he has failed to convince any of the country's influential oligarchs to take his side in politics. On top of that, there have been no reports testifying that Yushchenko tried or even signaled his willingness to strike a kind of Yeltsin-Putin deal with Kuchma, whereby he would guarantee the current Ukrainian president (and some of his aides) quiet retirement from politics and immunity from prosecution in exchange for his smooth takeover in 2004.

Instead, Yushchenko is apparently pinning his hopes on ordinary voters. He has launched a campaign to collect signatures in support of the demand that the president continue to be elected in a universal ballot. The petition reportedly has so far been signed by more than 3 million people. Public surveys show that more than 80 percent of Ukrainians want to exercise their right to elect the president directly.

But what will happen if the authorities fail to heed this demand? The Kyiv-based Razumkov Center found in a poll in November that if the authorities launch a campaign of repression against the opposition and abolish the direct presidential election, no more than 27 percent of respondents would find the courage to provide "active" support to the opposition. Some 27 percent were unable to answer what they would do in such a situation, while 30 percent said they would do nothing at all. As shown by the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" and "Rise Up, Ukraine" opposition protest campaigns in 2000-02, the political apathy of Ukrainians, or their reluctance to publicly demonstrate their discontent with the authorities, was even greater than that suggested by the above-mentioned poll.

There is no reason to believe at the present moment that the implementation of the Medvedchuk-Symonenko constitutional overhaul may provoke an uprising against the Ukrainian authorities. On the other hand, this possible overhaul also will not spark any significant public enthusiasm or instill the nation with new hope for a better life. The planned reform is not about a better life for the people but for their rulers.

U.S. GENERAL SIGNALS SHIFT IN POLICY IN AFGHANISTAN...
The new commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno, said on 21 December that new military bases will be established in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the BBC reported. The bases will be located in areas where terrorist and anticoalition activities by suspected neo-Taliban and their supporters have driven out aid agencies, he added. Barno said the U.S.-led coalition is considering significantly altering its strategy in the south and east of the country. He acknowledged that the increase in military activities might result in more resistance, but he added that enemies will "realize that's the death knell to terrorist organizations in that part of the country." AT

...INCLUDING MORE PROVINCIAL RECONSTRUCTION TEAMS
Barno said the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan will reach 12 by March, Radio Afghanistan reported on 21 December. He said PRTs will seek to reduce the gap between the people and the government and provide a guarantee of safety. Barno added that the PRT expansion will be implemented once NATO takes command of those teams (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 October 2003). Some PRTs will be deployed in volatile regions, including the Zabul and Oruzgan provinces, the BBC reported on 21 December. The effort to bring peace and security to most of the country is seen as a prerequisite for a successful presidential election, which is slated for June 2004 in accordance with the 2001 Bonn agreement. AT

UN, U.S. RECOMMENDATIONS ON AFGHAN ELECTIONS APPEAR TO DIFFER SHARPLY
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, has reiterated that he does not consider the security situation in Afghanistan conducive to a general presidential election as early as June, Bakhtar news agency reported on 22 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003). Brahimi said the election must be delayed by six to 12 months. Alternatively, he suggested that the term of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai be extended for five years. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said Washington does not agree with Brahimi's views. AT

AFGHAN KIDNAPPERS REPORTEDLY SET DEMANDS FOR RELEASE OF HOSTAGES
Neo-Taliban sources have demanded the release of 55 of their followers from Afghan prisons in exchange for the release of the two Indian engineers abducted on 6 December, Afghanistan Television reported on 22 December. The Indian nationals, who were working on the reconstruction of the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, disappeared in the Shah Joy District of Zabul Province (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 December 2003). Lieutenant General Helaluddin Helal, the Afghan government's deputy interior minister for security affairs, said that the Afghan Transitional Administration has refused the demand by the neo-Taliban. Helal added that the two engineers are in good health and that the Interior Ministry is trying to arrange for their release. The demand came in a letter purporting to speak for a "Taliban Islamic Emirate" and demanding the release of former Taliban soldiers held prisoner in Sheberghan, Jowzjan Province, AP reported on 22 December. AT

EDITOR OF KABUL'S 'ANIS' DAILY RESIGNS
Siamak Herawi resigned as editor in chief of the state-run "Anis" daily newspaper on 21 December, citing unspecified "circumstances," Hindukosh news agency reported. Herawi announced his unexpected resignation after a meeting the same day with Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin. Rahin subsequently said he is unaware of Herawi's resignation, according to Hindukosh. "Anis," founded in 1927, is the oldest newspaper still in circulation in Afghanistan. AT

IRANIAN OFFICIALS DECRY ISRAELI THREAT
Officials in Tehran reacted defiantly on 22 December to recent Israeli threats against Iranian nuclear assets. "He made a damned mistake," President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami told a news conference in response to Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's alleged statement that Israel is considering an operation to destroy Iran's nuclear capability, according to IRNA. Mofaz's statement was reported by the "Ha'aretz" daily on 21 December. Iranian air force chief Brigadier General Reza Pardis said in a 22 December interview with Mehr News Agency that an Israeli attack on Iran would have unimaginable consequences. Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani responded, "If the threat against our country is carried out, no part of Israel will be safe for the leaders of the Zionist regime," state television reported on 22 December. Shamkhani added in an interview that appeared in the 22 December issue of Abha's "Al-Watan" daily newspaper that "these threats are a reflection of Israeli expansionist war intentions." BS

TEHRAN HOSTS ISLAMIC CONFERENCE
On the second day of the 21-22 December "Islamic World -- Opportunities and Challenges" conference in Tehran, Iranian parliamentarian Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur said nations must work together to free themselves from "imperialism, Zionism, despotism, and dictatorship," ILNA reported. He charged that Zionism is trying to undermine the Islamic world and added, "They seek to weaken Islam in the world in a bid to establish the supremacy of the Zionist regime in the world and American domination over oil resources." Mohtashami-Pur stressed the importance of resistance in overcoming such problems, and he praised the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance. He said the Lebanese resistance was inspired by Iran's Islamic Revolution. The previous day, Iranian President Khatami told the conference that Muslims are mainly threatened by delays in achieving religiously based freedom, justice, and democracy, IRNA reported. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi compared the neo-conservative trend in the United States, which he accused of promoting unipolarism and seeking economic, military, and political domination, with extremist Islamist ideology, which indulges in violence because of an inability to understand complex issues, IRNA reported. BS

IRAN WELCOMES SENEGALESE PRESIDENT
President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal arrived in Tehran on 22 December for a three-day official visit, IRNA reported. Wade met with President Khatami and Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi. Kharrazi said mutual ties can be expanded a great deal, and he noted that Iranian technical and engineering firms can establish factories, run mines, and build roads and dams. Kharrazi also discussed the export of machinery used for agriculture, drilling, and mining. Wade expressed an interest in buying cement factories, in petrochemical machinery and expertise, and in hosting an exhibition of Iranian automobiles. The Iranian ministers of foreign affairs, of industries and mines, of energy, and of cooperatives attended Wade's first meeting with Khatami. Tehran recently granted a $20 million line of credit to Senegal, and Senegal supported Iran in the UN Commission on Human Rights, according to IRNA. In April 2002, a draft resolution criticizing the human rights situation in Iran was defeated by a roll-call vote of 19 in favor to 20 against, with 14 abstentions (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 April 2002). BS

IRAN SENDS MIXED MESSAGES ON FATE OF MUJAHEDIN KHALQ MEMBERS
An Iranian Foreign Ministry official told Swiss Ambassador to Tehran Tim Guldimann on 22 December that U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer's recent comments about the extradition of Iranian armed-opposition members to countries other than Iran were "irresponsible," IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 December 2003). "By making such comments, the Americans prove they are not sincere in their claims of pioneering the international campaign against terrorism," the Iranian diplomat added in a reference to Bremer's remarks concerning members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO). Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran because Tehran and Washington do not have diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, Iraqi Governing Council President for the month of December Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim said in a 22 December interview with the Riyadh-based Voice of Free Iraq that some MKO members will be deported to Iran, IRNA reported. MKO members who have committed crimes in Iraq, however, will be tried there, he added. "A large number of Iraqi citizens have already filed lawsuits against certain MKO agents, who are summoned to stand trial," al-Hakim said. BS

RUSSIA AGREES TO WRITE OFF $5 BILLION IN IRAQI DEBT
Russia pledged to reduce Iraq's $8 billion debt to Moscow, and Italy said it might increase the number of its soldiers serving in Iraq, BBC.com reported on 23 December. Russia said it would slash the debt by 65 percent, or more than $5 billion, in exchange for participation in Iraq's reconstruction. The head of the Iraqi Governing Council, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, confirmed that a deal has been reached to allow Russian companies to operate in Iraq. "We will be open to all Russian companies," al-Hakim said. Most of the Iraqi debt relates to Soviet military hardware that Iraq bought in the 1980s. It is understood that Russia's offer to reduce the debt must first be accepted by the Paris Club, an informal group of creditors that coordinates debt repayment. Russia had been excluded from bidding for U.S.-funded reconstruction contracts because it did not participate in the U.S.-led military action against the former regime. Last week Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi agreed to forgive a substantial part of Iraq's $1.7 billion debt to Italy during a meeting in Rome with U.S. presidential envoy James Baker. Baker has also secured pledges from the governments of Britain, France, and Germany to write off some of the money borrowed by the former Iraqi regime. The United States believes reconstruction could be more difficult unless much of Iraq's $12 billion in debts are written off. MH

FORMER IRAQI GENERAL CAPTURED
The U.S. military said on 22 December that it has detained a former Iraqi general suspected of recruiting anticoalition fighters in Iraq, kurdishmedia.com reported. U.S. troops captured former army General Mumtaz al-Taji in a raid on a house in Baqouba. U.S. military spokesman Major Paul Owens said al-Taji is believed to have recruited Iraqi army veterans for attacks against coalition forces. Al-Taji was captured during a series of raids that began on 21 December in various parts of Iraq. MH

BOMB KILLS TWO U.S. SOLDIERS
A roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad on 22 December, killing two U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter, Al-Jazeera reported. The blast also wounded two other soldiers, the U.S. military said. The military deaths, the first in five days, brought to 202 the number of U.S. soldiers killed by hostile fire since Washington declared major combat over in Iraq on 1 May. The U.S. military also said that an Iraqi woman was killed on 21 December as U.S. occupation forces rounded up scores of people in a continuing crackdown in the Sunni heartlands of Iraq. MH

KURDS STAGE DEMONSTRATION FOR CONTROL OF KIRKUK
Thousands of Iraqi Kurds gathered on 22 December in the northern oil center of Kirkuk to demand that the city be incorporated into a future autonomous Kurdish region, AFP reported. The city of Kirkuk lies south of the three provinces that were ruled by Kurdish rebel factions in defiance of the ousted regime. "We demand federalism for Kurdistan," the demonstrators chanted in Kurdish in the city center, according to AFP sources. Protestors waved the Kurdish flag, but no Iraqi flags were visible. A giant U.S. flag was also unfurled. It was the biggest demonstration in this city, 255 kilometers north of Baghdad, since the Ba'athist regime fell on 9 April. Armed Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi police provided security at the demonstration. MH

MASS GRAVE DISCOVERED OUTSIDE AL-BASRAH
Iraqi police say they have uncovered up to 60 bodies in a mass grave outside the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah, the BBC reported on 22 December. The bodies are thought to be those of Shi'a Muslims killed after an uprising in 1991 that was brutally crushed by deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, police said. U.S. officials say Iraq might have up to 260 mass graves containing as many as 300,000 bodies. In November, U.S. officials assigned to uncover Iraq's mass graves said that 40 similar sites have already been found and that the mass graves mostly contain the remains of ethnic Kurds and Shi'a Muslims killed for opposing the regime between 1983 and 1991. MH

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