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Newsline - January 5, 2004


IDEOLOGUE OF ANTI-OLIGARCH CAMPAIGN CALLS FOR STRATEGY OF 'NATIONAL REVENGE'...
National Strategy Council Director Stanislav Belkovskii in separate interviews with RosBalt on 24 December and "Zavtra," No. 52, said the main goal for President Vladimir Putin in 2004 will be to present the country with a new political course, which could be called "the strategy of Russian national revenge in all possible forms." Belkovskii, who is widely believed to have foreshadowed the campaign in recent months against the oligarchs with his analytical reports last summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May, 30 July, and 28 October 2003) stated that the essence of the new course "will be to put an end to the epoch [of former President Boris Yeltsin] and to bring to power a new anti-Yeltsin elite." Putin also should announce that the only way for Russia to prosper in the 21st century is through its complete domination of the "post-Soviet space," which is "its historical-geographical area." To this end, Russia should invest enormous economic and military means into the restoration and support of pro-Russian elites in the former Soviet republics, Belkovskii said. VY

...AS COLLEAGUE SAYS PUTIN SHOULD TAKE ON HISTORICAL MISSION...
National Strategy Council co-Director Iosif Diskin said the results of the 7 December State Duma elections show that ideology has ceased to influence the minds of Russians and has been replaced by the notion of national interest and an aspiration to rationalism. According to sociologists, Russians do not trust any political and social institutions except President Putin and the U.S. dollar, Diskin said. Under these circumstances Putin should reject his role as "hired manager" and take on the role of a missionary, offering the nation a new historical project. Diskin said he agreed with Belkovskii that such a project could be only a "Great Russia." "History has left us no other choice," Diskin remarked. "Russia can only be great." VY

...AND EXPERTS PREDICT RUSSIA WILL CLASH WITH EU AND U.S. OVER INFLUENCE IN THE CIS
Institute for Political Research Director Sergei Markov told strana.ru on 30 December that in 2004 Russia's new assertive policy toward the former Soviet republics will very probably conflict with the interests of the United States and the European Union. These interests have already collided in Georgia and Moldova and could do so in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, as Russia carries forward its policy restoring its dominance in the region, Markov said. Fedor Lukyanov, the editor in chief of "Russia in Global Policy" told RosBalt on 25 December that although President Putin's pro-Western policy survived differences with the United States over the war in Iraq, there are clear signs that Russian relations with West will deteriorate. At the end of last year, Russia faced the united position of the EU, OSCE, and the United States, all of which rejected Moscow's unilateral peace plan for Moldova. On the whole, Russia has failed to find a common language with the EU bureaucracy on many issues, and tensions will be exacerbated when 10 new members join the bloc in May. Many of those new EU members will be former Soviet republics or satellite states with which Russia has enjoyed privileged trade relations. Russia will lose this economic status in these countries after they join the EU, Lukyanov said. VY

PUTIN TAPS SECURITY-ORGANS VETERAN AS ACTING INTERIOR MINISTER
President Putin on 2 January appointed First Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Rashid Nurgaliev as acting interior minister, Russian media reported. Former Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov resigned in December in order to become the speaker of the new State Duma (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003). Nurgaliev, who has headed the ministry's criminal police, came to the ministry in 2002 together with a group of other high-ranking Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. He joined the KGB in 1981 in Petrozavodsk, and his last position with the FSB was as its deputy director. Analysts believe that he will be chosen to succeed Gryzlov. The Interior Ministry is Russia's largest domestic security force, with almost 2 million employees. VY

PROSECUTORS IN 'STATISTICS CASE' CALL FOR STIFF PRISON TERMS
Prosecutors in the trial of former State Statistics Committee (Goskomstat) Chairman Yurii Yurkov and other former senior Goskomstat and Labor Ministry officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 August 2001 and 11 March 2003) have called for prison terms of eight to 10 years if the accused are convicted, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 30 December. Yurkov, his former deputy Valerii Dalin, former head of the Goskomstat computer center Boris Saakyan, and four others were arrested in 1998 on charges of selling confidential state economic information to commercial structures. According to law enforcement officials, a search of Saakyan's residence during the investigation turned up $2.5 million in cash. Also among the accused was Igor Storchevoi, a former officer with the now-disbanded Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI). He died before the trial began. VY

MOSCOW RESERVED ON GEORGIAN ELECTION
Asked to comment on the reported 4 January presidential-election victory in Georgia of Mikhail Saakashvili, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said Russia will formulate its attitude toward the new Georgian administration only after official election results have been announced, RTR reported on 4 January. He added that Moscow will "take into account the opinions of foreign election observers." Yakovenko said that Russia is interested in a "democratic and stable Georgia that has friendly relations with its neighboring states and respects the interests of all people living within that multinational country." After meeting in Moscow on 25 December with acting Georgian President Nino Burdjanadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003), Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said, "We are very worried about the situation in Georgia, as Russia's security in many instance depends on developments there," strana.ru and georgia.ru reported on 25 December. VY

FEDERATION COUNCIL CHAIRMAN TO KEEP PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION FROM BECOMING 'A FARCE'...
Delegates at a Party of Life congress voted on 4 January to nominate their leader, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, as a candidate in the 14 March presidential election, Russian media reported. No one else was nominated, and 198 of the 210 delegates voted for Mironov, according to NTV. Nikolai Levichev, chairman of the party's executive committee, declared that the participation in the election of noted Soviet-era businessman German Sterligov, pharmaceutical tycoon and State Duma Deputy Vladimir Bryntsalov (Unified Russia), and former State Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin "threatened to turn the election a farce," and Mironov's entry into the race would prevent this, utro.ru reported. Mironov, who has called for lifting the two-term limit for presidents, denied that he has discussed his candidacy with anyone in the presidential administration. "I am an independent politician," he said. JAC

...AS FORMER CENTRAL BANKER ALSO THROWS HAT INTO THE RING
The Central Election Commission (TsIK) on 27 December refused to register a voter group formed to support businessman Sterligov's candidacy, and the Moscow city prosecutor's office has launched a criminal case against him on suspicion of libel and inciting interethnic hatred, regions.ru reported on 4 January. The commission has approved the registration of voter groups for President Putin, Duma Deputy Bryntsalov, and former Duma Speaker Rybkin, grani.ru reported on 1 January. The registrations of voter groups in support of Duma Deputy and Motherland faction leader Sergei Glazev and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-Chairwoman Irina Khakamada are still pending. Although Glazev and Khakamada are leaders of political parties, they are running as self-nominated candidates. The SPS will decide at its 24 January congress whether to provide organizational support for Khakamada, RIA-Novosti reported. Political parties have until 6 January to nominate their candidates. The Russian Regions party, which entered the Duma through the Motherland bloc, has nominated former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko. Prior to his election to the Duma last month, Gerashchenko, 66, had never held elective office. JAC

NEW YEAR BRINGS NEW LAWS INTO EFFECT...
Soviet-era internal passports ceased to be valid documents for most citizens as of 1 January, Russian media reported. The only exceptions are for certain foreign citizens and stateless persons, such as citizens of former Soviet republics who have come to Russia and have received temporary residence permits. The latter have until 1 January 2006 to obtain new Russian passports. Holders of the old Soviet passports will face fines and will be unable to undertake legal transactions, buy train or airplane tickets, or receive pensions. According to newsru.com on 1 January, more than 125 million people have received the new passports. The Russian population is generally estimated at 145 million. JAC

...AS QUESTIONS CONTINUE TO BE RAISED ABOUT LAW ON ALTERNATIVE CIVILIAN SERVICE
The law on alternate civilian service came into effect on 1 January, Russian media reported. Under the law, potential conscripts seeking alternative civilian service must serve 42 months in nonmilitary organizations or 36 months in the armed forces working as civilians, ITAR-TASS reported. According to RTR on 2 January, conscripts have until 1 April to submit their applications for alternative service. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 2 January, Valentina Melnikova, secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, said the law on alternative service does not provide young men with a real opportunity to choose alternative service, because of the long period of service and the locations where that service must be performed, which can be far from the conscript's home. JAC

POPULARITY OF SMOKING CONTINUES RISING
Almost half of the Russian population smokes, one of the highest rates in the world, Institute of Carcinogen Research Director David Zaridze told Ekho Moskvy on 2 January. In contrast to the United States or Europe, that percentage is increasing, rather than declining. One in two smokers dies from a disease related to smoking, according to Zaridze. Zaridze complained that a law that bans smoking in public places came into effect several months ago, but is not being enforced. Almost two years ago in a speech to the State Council, President Putin reported that the number of men under age 40 who smoke has increased from 25 to 70 percent over the last five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2002) JAC

COLORFUL COMMUNIST CANDIDATE TO TRY TO WIN OVER PROTEST ELECTORATE
Vasilii Shandybin, a former State Duma deputy in the Communist faction, has withdrawn his candidacy for a by-election in a single-mandate district in Ulyanovsk Oblast in order to run in one in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Interfax reported on 31 December. In both of those districts, the majority of voters voted against all candidates in the 7 December State Duma elections. The by-elections will be held on 14 March together with the presidential election. JAC

CHECHEN PRESIDENT 'SLIGHTLY WOUNDED'
Aslan Maskhadov was slightly wounded in an attack on 27 December on a group of Russian special forces and pro-Moscow Chechen fighters, chechenpress.info reported on 3 January quoting Daymohk. The attack took place in the Nozhai-Yurt Raion of southern Chechnya after Maskhadov's men were warned of an impending ambush. Some 30 Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen troops were reportedly killed in a battle using mortars and grenade launchers, after which Maskhadov's men retreated with minimal casualties, according to the report. LF

INCURSION INTO DAGHESTAN REPORTEDLY QUASHED
Defense Minister Ivanov informed President Putin on 30 December that the operation to locate and destroy the group of militants who attacked Daghestan's Tsunta Raion on 15 December was successfully completed the previous day, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15, 16, 17, and 22 December 2003). Ivanov said most of the 36 militants were killed and three taken prisoner. He added that the militants were heading for Georgia, but had been prevented from crossing into Georgian territory. Spokesmen for the federal border protection service and the North Caucasus Military District said the group included several Arab mercenaries whose identities are being established. LF

AZERBAIJAN MARKS SOLIDARITY DAY
Azerbaijan's parliament adopted a statement on 30 December pegged to the Day of Solidarity of the World's Azerbaijanis, which in accordance with an edict issued in 1991 by then-Nakhichevan Supreme Council Chairman Heidar Aliyev is marked on 31 December, local media reported. The parliamentary statement called on all Azerbaijanis to work for a solution of the Karabakh conflict. A parallel address carried by AzerNews on 31 December and reposted by Groong summarizes the history of the various states that existed over the past 5,000 years on the territory of what is now the Azerbaijan Republic and claimed that "historic Azerbaijan encompassed the entire northern region [of the Caucasus] from the Caspian coastal area of Iran to the borders of Turkey, as well as the territory of present-day Armenia, the city of Derbent in Daghestan, and the eastern provinces of Georgia." The address estimated that the world Azerbaijani community numbers more than 40 million, including 8 million in the Azerbaijan Republic, 30 million in Iran, and 1 million in Turkey. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI INTERIOR MINISTER PARDONED
Iskander Hamidov was released from jail on 30 December in accordance with a presidential decree pardoning or reducing the sentences of 160 prisoners, Turan reported. Hamidov, chairman of the nationalist Boz Gurd party, was sentenced in September 1995 to 14 years' imprisonment upon conviction on charges of embezzlement, abuse of his official position, and causing grievous bodily harm. He was retried at the insistence of the Council of Europe, which had designated him a political prisoner, and sentenced in July 2003 to 11 years imprisonment on the same charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 July 2003). Hamidov was met by some 150 supporters when he left jail, and a motorcade of some 150 cars accompanied him first to a Muslim pilgrimage site and then to his home. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI OIL SECTOR HEAD SAYS CASPIAN OPEC UNREALISTIC
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's recent proposal that the Caspian littoral states should create a cartel analogous to OPEC to regulate oil production (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003) is not feasible at the present time, Sabit Bagirov, a former president of Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR, told Interfax on 31 December. Bagirov pointed out that "the Caspian states have not yet reached a level of oil production that could account for a significant share of the market," and that it is "too early" for Azerbaijan to make specific commitments on export quotas to any organization. But he added that a coordinated policy will be needed by 2010, assuming that Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan attain optimum levels of output by then. Nazarbaev was quoted by Interfax on 28 December as saying that the Caspian states should establish a counterweight to OPEC "before it is too late." LF

GEORGIA ELECTS A PRESIDENT...
According to exit polls and unofficial estimates, National Movement Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili was elected Georgian president on 4 January with between 85-90 percent of the vote, Georgian and Russian media reported. Of Saakashvili's five rival candidates, former Imereti Governor Temur Shashiashvili polled just under 2 percent and the others less than 1 percent. Mdzleveli candidate Zurab Kelekhsashvili's 3 January request to pull out of the ballot reached the Central Election Commission (CEC) too late for his name to be removed from ballot papers, Caucasus Press reported. Acting President Nino Burdjanadze and Minister of State Zurab Zhvania, who together with Saakashvili launched the protests that resulted in the forced resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze on 23 November, have congratulated Saakashvili on his victory and announced that their bloc will align with Saakashvili's to contest the upcoming repeat parliamentary elections. The OSCE has urged holding that ballot in April or May, and Saakashvili said on 4 January that Burdjanadze, who will now return to her earlier post as parliament speaker, will announce the date "in a few days," ITAR-TASS reported. LF

...AMID CONFLICTING ESTIMATES OF VOTER TURNOUT
CEC Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili told journalists on 5 January that it is not yet possible accurately to compute either the percentage of votes cast for individual candidates or the precise voter turnout, ITAR-TASS reported. Voting will continue until 6 January in some remote districts to which ballot papers were not delivered by 3 January, Caucasus Press reported. In the early afternoon of 4 January, Chiaberashvili said voter participation was very low and expressed concern that the minimum 50 percent turnout might not be reached. Saakashvili, however, said soon after that voter turnout was unprecedentedly high, and at 5:30 p.m. local time Chiaberashvili said the 50 percent figure had been reached. Interfax, however, quoted opposition candidate Kartlos Gharibashvili as claiming that by 5 p.m. on 4 January turnout did not exceed 25 percent. Turnout in the Adjar Autonomous Republic was only 24 percent, Caucasus Press reported on 5 January. LF

FEW VIOLATIONS REPORTED DURING GEORGIAN VOTE
On 3 January, CEC Chairman Chiaberashvili told a press conference in Tbilisi that lists of voters have been revised to remove the names of persons who are dead or no longer resident in a given district, and are now "100 percent correct," Interfax reported. Chiaberashvili said late on 4 January that the voting took place without major violations. But the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported that one polling station in the southern district of Marneuli closed early, leaving some voters outside unable to cast ballots. The same television station also quoted Gia Danelia, a spokesman for the opposition Labor Party that had called for a boycott of the election, as claiming that the vote in eastern Georgia was marred by large-scale falsification. LF

FORMER GEORGIAN SECURITY MINISTER TO CHALLENGE POLL IN THE COURTS
Speaking on a Russian television channel on 2 January, former Georgian State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, whose application to contest the 4 January presidential election was rejected, appealed to his supporters in Georgia to boycott the vote, Caucasus Press reported. Giorgadze said the election cannot be regarded as legal, and that he intends to challenge the result in both Georgian and unspecified European courts, according to Interfax on 2 January. Giorgadze's supporters elected him in absentia chairman of the newly founded center-left Justice party at a congress in Tbilisi on 30 December, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. LF

GEORGIAN DETAINEE REMAINS IN JAIL, COLLEAGUES RELEASED
A Tbilisi District Court approved on 31 December the release from detention of four former members of Giorgadze's Alpha special security force who subsequently formed a private security service, Caucasus Press reported. The men were arrested last month on charges of illegal possession of weapons, although they have official authorization to carry firearms when discharging their duties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2003). A fifth member of the group, Colonel Kote Shavishvili, remains in detention despite a request by staff of the Georgian ombudsman's office for his release. Shavishvili claims his arrest was politically motivated and has begun a protest hunger strike. LF

RUSSIAN OFFICIAL CALLS FOR STRONGER CONTROLS AT KAZAKH BORDER CROSSINGS
Russian Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Aleksandr Chekalin has called for tougher controls at crossing points along the Kazakh-Russian border, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 4 January. He said the Eurasian Economic Community's agreement on visa-free travel within the community by citizens of member states (Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus) has caused an increase in illegal migration from Central Asia via Kazakhstan into the Russian Federation. Chekalin noted that Kazakhstan also has agreements with Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, China, and North Korea that would enable citizens of those countries to use Kazakhstan as a transit route to Russia. Chekalin called for the speedy drafting of a bilateral agreement on simplified border-crossing procedures for residents of border areas, the implementation of a 1998 bilateral agreement on regulating migration, and the opening of a branch of the Russian Interior Ministry's Migration Office in Kazakhstan. BB

KAZAKHSTAN LAUNCHES SPACE PROGRAM
Kazakhstan has launched a space program by sending a government commission to Russia's Khrunichev State Space Center to build the Kazakhstan's first telecommunications satellite, Kazinform reported on 3 January. Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov discussed the construction and launching of the satellite with Khrunichev Center Director Aleksandr Medvedev in Astana on 31 December. The project, which also includes the training of Kazakh aerospace specialists, will be financed through a state innovation fund that was set up in 2003. Since the country gained its independence, Kazakh officials have talked about using the facilities at the Russian-leased Baikonur Space Center for a Kazakh space program. BB

MORATORIUM ON DEATH PENALTY PROLONGED IN KYRGYZSTAN
Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has prolonged the country's death-penalty moratorium for another year, grani.ru reported on 1 January, quoting the Kyrgyz presidential press service. The moratorium was first instituted in 1998 and has been prolonged annually. The 2004 extension was explained as commemorating the 55th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to the report, there are currently 150 prisoners on death row in Kyrgyzstan. BB

KYRGYZSTAN'S COMMUNISTS TO UNITE?
Kyrgyzstan's two communist parties -- the Party of Communists of Kyrgyzstan, which is headed by former first secretary of the Communist Party of Kirghizia Absamat Masaliev, and the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan, headed by Klara Azhibekova -- would like to unite, if a personal dispute between the two leaders can be resolved, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 3 January and Deutsche Welle reported the following day. According to parliamentarian Orozbek Duisheev, who is a member of the presidium of Masaliev's party, Masaliev has demanded that Azhibekova apologize for calling him an opportunist in an interview that was published in the daily "Vechernii Bishkek" on 15 September 1999. Azhibekova told Deutsche Welle that members of both parties have been calling for unification for a long time and said that she has nothing to apologize for. BB

AGREEMENT SIGNED ON U.S. FINANCING OF TAJIK-AFGHAN BRIDGE
Tajik Transport Minister Abduzhalol Salimov and U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland have signed an agreement on U.S. financing of construction of a bridge linking Tajikistan and Afghanistan across the Pyandzh River, the official Tajik news agency Khovar reported on 5 January. The United States agreed in principle last year to finance construction of the Pyandzh bridge, and U.S. construction specialists have already inspected the site. BB

TAJIK PROSECUTOR WARNS INDEPENDENT WEEKLY TO STOP INSULTING PRESIDENT
Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobozhon Bobokhonov has sent an official warning to the independent Dushanbe weekly "Ruz-i Nav" to stop publishing articles that groundlessly criticize the authorities, violate legislation on the media and, in particular, insult President Imomali Rakhmonov, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 4 January, quoting the Prosecutor-General's Office. The warning contains a threat that if the weekly continues to publish such articles, it will be closed down. "Ruz-i Nav" Editor Razhab Mirzo told Asia Plus that the warning is one more example of government pressure on the publication. The weekly's problems with the authorities began in November when the presidential publishing house refused to print one issue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1, 11 and 15 December 2003). BB

LATEST ISSUE OF TAJIK INDEPENDENT WEEKLY BANNED
Tax officials banned the sale of the year-end edition of the Dushanbe weekly "Nerui Sukhan" because neither the publishing house that printed it nor the size of the print run were indicated in the issue, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 31 December. According to the report, the publishing house was indicated in previous editions, but the printer of the year-end edition did not want to be identified because the authorities warned all Dushanbe publishing houses not to print "Nerui Sukhan." The weekly, which was launched in February, has gained popularity for its critical articles about the government. According to a 4 January report by Deutsche Welle, the Tajik tax authorities are looking into the finances of four independent publications: "Ruz-i Nav," "Nerui Sukhan," "Oila," and "Tochikistan." BB

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SIGNS 2004 BUDGET...
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed the 2004 budget bill into law on 29 December, Belapan reported, quoting the presidential press service. The budget projects revenues of 13.2 trillion Belarusian rubles ($6.1 billion) and spending of 13.9 trillion Belarusian rubles, representing a deficit of 1.5 percent of GDP. The 2004 budget for the first time includes the Labor Ministry's Social Protection Fund and Fund for the Support of Agricultural Producers and Agrarian Science in order to "consolidate state funds and enhance control over their use," according to the press service. AM

...AND CREATES MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMMITTEE
President Lukashenka issued a decree on 30 December establishing a government agency called the State Military-Industrial Committee (Dzyarzhkamvayenpram), Belapan reported, quoting the presidential press service. The new committee will reportedly coordinate the activities of other state agencies, organizations, and enterprises operating in the country's defense industry in order to adapt that sector to market-economy conditions. Lukashenka appointed Mikalay Azamatau, general director of the Minsk-based company Ahat and a senior official in the Ministry of Industry, to chair Dzyarzhkamvayenpram. AM

UKRAINIAN COURT SAYS KUCHMA MAY RUN FOR PRESIDENCY IN 2004
The Ukrainian Constitutional Court ruled on 30 December that President Leonid Kuchma is not prohibited from running for the post of president in 2004, Interfax reported. Article 103 of the Ukrainian Constitution, which was promulgated in June 1996, forbids anyone from serving two consecutive presidential terms. Kuchma was first elected president in July 1994 and was re-elected under the new constitution in November 1999. The Constitutional Court said Article 103 may not be applied retroactively, thus opening the way for Kuchma to take part in the presidential election that is expected in November. AM

ESTONIA'S STATE BUDGET SHOWS 2003 SURPLUS
The Estonian Finance Ministry announced on 2 January that the state budget showed a 1.86 billion-kroon ($151 million) surplus in 2003, based on revenues nearly 4 percent above the budget forecast and expenditures that came in more than 1 percent below the allocated figure, BNS reported. The surplus will be placed in a currency-stabilization reserve fund, as prescribed by Estonian law. Analysts widely forecasted the surplus -- due in large part to higher-than-expected corporate-tax and value-added-tax (VAT) receipts -- after the government decided in August not to submit a second supplementary budget (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 2003). SG

LATVIAN PRIME MINISTER SETS 2004 PRIORITIES
In a year-end state-radio broadcast, Einars Repse told listeners that his top priorities in 2004 will be combating corruption, increasing child-care allowances, and ensuring that EU structural funds are used effectively, BNS reported on 2 January. Repse reiterated his previous claim that "corruption won't be tolerated" in Latvia. Repse also voiced concern about the demographic situation in Latvia and suggested that the child-care allowance should equal a parent's monthly salary. He said the government is working on legislation to increase child-care allowances starting in 2005, adding that the Welfare Ministry has set up a task force to draft a concept for raising allowances to families with newborn children. With the expected entry into the European Union in May, Latvia will become eligible for EU assistance that is projected at 625 million euros ($787 million) in 2004, provided that Latvia supplies co-financing of 205 million euros. SG

OUTGOING DIPLOMAT ESCHEWS LITHUANIAN PRESIDENTIAL ASSIGNMENT
Lithuania's outgoing ambassador to Spain and several other countries, Vytautas Dambrava, declared on 30 December that he will not accept a post as embattled President Rolandas Paksas's representative for special assignments, BNS reported on 30 December. Paksas had signed a decree on 22 December appointing the 83-year-old Dambrava as his representative for relations with Lithuanian emigrants, the international Jewish community, Euro-Atlantic integration, and public-diplomacy issues. In a letter to Paksas, Dambrava reportedly thanked the president for his trust but wrote: "The current situation shows that not Lithuania but our personal ambitions are at the center of our concerns. Giving thanks for the confidence in me, I am truly sorry that I cannot make a meaningful contribution working in your team at the moment." Dambrava's duties as ambassador to Spain, Brazil, Morocco, and Andorra will end on 15 January. SG

POLAND TO SEND MORE TROOPS TO IRAQ
Poland intends to increase its military contingent in Iraq by roughly 10 percent, or 250 troops, from its current figure of about 2,500 troops, Polish Radio reported on 3 January, quoting Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski. The chief of the Polish Army General Staff, General Czeslaw Piatas, said the decision was made in the light of the new situation in Iraq, in which bomb attacks have replaced machine-gun shelling. Polish soldiers will reportedly be equipped with a greater range of weapons, they will have more armored transporters, and their all-terrain vehicles will also be armored. AM

POLISH PRESIDENT RULES OUT THIRD TERM
President Aleksander Kwasniewski has said he has no intention of asking Poland's Constitutional Tribunal to rule on whether he is banned from running for a third term in office, PAP reported on 1 January. According to the Polish Constitution, no individual may serve more than two presidential terms. However, the current constitution was adopted in 1997, during Kwasniewski's first term. "For me the rules are clear, and a two-term presidency, regardless of the kind of constitution, means a two-term presidency," Kwasniewski said in an allusion to last week's ruling by the Constitutional Court in neighboring Ukraine (see Ukraine item above). Kwasniewski said Ukrainian President Kuchma is also convinced the principle of a two-term presidency must be maintained, but the Polish president added that the Ukrainian "political base failed to prepare a suitable successor for him." Kwasniewski added, "Any attempt to trick or act on the borderline between law and disorder cannot be accepted, and will only move Ukraine away from the European structures." AM

CZECH PRESIDENT CHANGES TONE ON EU MEMBERSHIP
President Vaclav Klaus said in his New Year's Day speech on 1 January that his country's expected accession to the EU on 1 May will be a "tremendous opportunity," even though it will also mark "the end of the Czech Republic's formal sovereignty," CTK and AFP reported. Klaus, who calls himself a "Euro-realist," reiterated his position that the country "will become part of a supranational European entity that is continuously expanding and gaining more authority," according to the speech as published on the presidential website (http://www.hrad.cz). "Let's try to utilize this change to our state structure to maintain, or even to reinforce,... our freedom, our democracy, and our prosperity," he said. "Let us not fear the future and see it more as a tremendous opportunity for all of us that we should not pass up." Klaus and Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla met on 2 January and reported afterward that they agreed to put aside their considerable differences over the EU and cooperate on policy with respect to Brussels, according to CTK. They also vowed to address the Czech Parliament jointly regarding EU enlargement, CTK and dpa reported. MS

CZECH POLICE DETAIN BOMBING SUSPECT
Czech police announced on 30 December the detention of a man suspected of having carried out 18 bomb attacks in the country since 1999, CTK and international news agencies reported. Police President Jiri Kolar said the suspect, a retired locksmith, was caught while trying to damage a monument to Czech-German reconciliation in the east Bohemian town of Teplice nad Metuji. As police officers approached him, the suspect repeatedly cut his own throat in an apparent attempt at suicide. He remained under police watch and in serious condition in a Prague hospital, CTK reported on 4 January. If convicted, the man could face up to 15 years in jail. MS

SLOVAK PRESIDENT VETOES BILL ON PENSION HIKES...
President Rudolf Schuster refused on 2 January to promulgate a parliament-approved bill providing for a 4 percent increase in pensions from 1 February, TASR reported. Schuster, whose first five-year term runs out this year, called the hike insufficient and suggested that parliament raise pensions by 6-8 percent. Parliament may override the presidential veto with a simple majority of its 150 members. But a Labor Ministry spokesman said the presidential veto seriously threatens the February deadline and added that a 6-8 percent increase is impossible on budgetary grounds. Addressing the country on 1 January, Schuster again criticized the governing coalition for its infighting, which, he said, diverts much-needed attention from the country's growing social problems. He also called on citizens to participate in the presidential and European Parliament elections in 2004. "Political parties have been expanding their powers at the citizen's expense. Your vote would decide whether the trend of growing party power would continue or would be counterbalanced by the head of the state," Schuster said, according to TASR. MS

...AND CONSIDERS PETITION DRIVE FOR EARLY ELECTIONS CONSTITUTIONAL
President Schuster announced on 30 December that he considers the petition for a referendum on early elections to be constitutional and does not intend to seek the opinion of the Slovak Constitutional Court on the matter, TASR reported. The signature drive was launched in November by the Slovak Trade Unions Federation (KOZ), which has reported collecting some 450,000 signatures -- considerably more than the 350,000 signatures necessary for parliament to consider a nonbinding referendum on early elections. KOZ head Ivan Saktor and opposition spokesmen welcomed the presidential announcement. Economy Minister and Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO) Chairman Pavol Rusko said Schuster is trying to link the petition drive with the presidential elections, although he has not yet announced whether he will run for a second term. Schuster criticized parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky on 3 January, saying he abused his prerogatives by establishing a 10 January deadline for presidential candidates to announce their intentions to run, TASR reported. MS

HUNGARIAN BROADCASTER DISMISSED OVER CHRISTMAS EVE 'EXTERMINATION' REMARK
The opposition FIDESZ party and other conservative political and nongovernmental groups called on the National Radio and Television Board to withdraw state-supported Tilos Radio's license after a talk-show host reportedly said that he would "exterminate all Christians," "Nepszabadsag" reported on 5 January. Radio host Zoltan Bajnai made the remarks during a radio program on 24 December, Christmas Eve according to the Gregorian calendar. Board member Miklos Paizs apologized on behalf of the board on 26 December, and said the remark runs counter to the radio station's ideology, the MTI news agency reported. The news agency and Paizs accused Bajnai of being drunk during the broadcast. Paizs said Bajnai had been dismissed and the program in question has been suspended. FIDESZ called Tilos Radio a hate-mongering medium, according to "Nepszabadsag," and said no radio station that offends millions of people should be allowed to operate in Hungary. MSZ

HUNGARIAN COMMISSION TO PROBE 1944 'GHETTOIZATION' LISTS
Culture Minister Istvan Hiller has established a commission to examine the "Jaross lists" of individuals forced into Hungarian ghettoes toward the end of World War II, the MTI news agency reported on 30 December. Andor Jaross, Hungary's interior minister in 1944, ordered authorities to compile lists of Jews who should live in ghettos. The ad hoc commission, whose work should be completed by 28 February, will investigate the fate of those lists. MSZ

COMMISSION ANNOUNCES FINAL SERBIAN ELECTION RESULTS
The Serbian Election Commission announced on 30 December that Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party (SRS) won the most seats in the 250-member legislature in the 28 December Serbian parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The SRS will have 82 seats, followed by former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) with 53. The Democratic Party of the late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic will have 37 representatives in the new parliament, followed by Miroljub Labus's G-17 Plus party with 34. A coalition of Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and Velimir Ilic's New Serbia party will have 22 seats, as will former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). Both Seselj and Milosevic are in custody in The Hague, where they face trial for alleged war crimes. Tomislav Nikolic leads the SRS in Seselj's absence, and Ivica Dacic plays a similar role for Milosevic in the SPS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003). PM

SERBIAN COALITION TALKS SET TO BEGIN
Representatives of the parties that will be represented in the new Serbian parliament are scheduled to begin talks on 5 January, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. SRS officials have previously said they are interested in a coalition only with the DSS. Representatives of the international community have made it clear that they do not want the SRS in the government, but DSS official Nebojsa Bakarec told RFE/RL recently that "all options are open." The international community is widely seen as favoring some form of coalition or cooperation between what are often referred to as the "democratic" or "reform" parties: the DSS, the Democratic Party, G-17 Plus, and the SPO-New Serbia coalition. Those parties, however, are deeply divided among themselves on several counts, not least of which are personal antagonisms among their respective leaders. Negotiations could drag on for weeks and, in any event, are not expected to end before Serbian Orthodox Christmas on 7 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003). PM

CROATIAN GOVERNMENT TO PROVIDE DOCUMENTS FOR INDICTED WAR CRIMINAL'S DEFENSE LAWYERS
Croatian government officials said on 3 January that they will obey a recent Croatian court ruling to provide defense attorneys for indicted war criminal and former General Ante Gotovina with copies of the documents regarding his case that the previous government sent to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, dpa reported. The previous government did not act on requests by the defense team for copies of the documents. The tribunal maintains that the defense lawyers may see the documents only after Gotovina, who is in hiding, gives himself up (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 December 2003). PM

BOSNIAN MASSACRE SURVIVORS MIGHT SUE THE NETHERLANDS
Semir Guzin, who is part of an international team of lawyers representing the survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, said in that Bosnian town on 4 January that he and his colleagues might sue the Dutch government in the Hague-based International Court of Justice for about $1 billion if the Dutch authorities do not show a willingness to start talks on compensation for the survivors, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Serbian forces killed up to 8,000 mainly Muslim males near Srebrenica after the town fell in July 1995. Dutch peacekeepers had responsibility for the UN-declared "safe area" there. PM

MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT MACEDONIAN SECURITY SITUATION
Despite progress in the stabilization of the security situation since the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement, Macedonia's Defense and Interior Ministries warned recently that there are still armed groups that threaten domestic peace, "Dnevnik" reported on 5 January. Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski singled out the shadowy Albanian National Army (AKSH) as a major threat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September and 3 and 4 December 2003). Eventual Macedonian NATO membership could send a clear signal to anyone in Albania or Kosova with territorial aspirations toward Macedonia, Buckovski argued. He added that it will be necessary to demarcate Macedonia's border with Kosova before the international community decides on the final status of Kosova. The Interior Ministry also warned of unspecified armed groups from Kosova that might seek to destabilize Macedonia. The ministry called on all institutions and political parties to coordinate their efforts to curb crime and terrorism. UB

ROMANIAN DEFENSE MINISTER PREDICTS EARLY NATO MEMBERSHIP
Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu said on 30 December that Romania is likely to "become a de jure NATO member by the end of April" and participate as a full member of the alliance at its Istanbul summit slated for June, Romanian Radio reported. Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said in December that the entry date for NATO's new members might be advanced to 5 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003). Pascu also said Romania's participation in missions abroad alongside NATO members has contributed to an acceleration of preparations for membership and of military reforms, since Romanian troops were "confronted [in these missions] with real problems that called for concrete solutions." MS

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT CALLS MOLDOVAN LEADER'S ATTACKS 'DELIRIOUS ABERRATIONS'
Romanian President Ion Iliescu on 30 December called accusations directed at his country and at himself by Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin "delirious" and "aberrant," Romanian Radio reported. Iliescu was reacting to comments Voronin made in a 27 December interview with Russian-language NIT television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003). He said Voronin's claim that the historically Romanian provinces of Moldavia, Transylvania, and Dobruja are under "Romanian occupation" and that Romania is the only surviving empire in Europe amount to an "inadmissible, irresponsible and disqualifying statement." Iliescu also described Voronin's references to the events of December 1989 and the alleged refusal by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev -- on Iliescu's urging -- to grant landing rights in Ukraine to a plane allegedly carrying communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as "ridiculous" and "an aberration." Iliescu said Voronin has embarked on a "dangerous race" against Romania that is likely to harm both Moldova and relations between that state and Romania. Iliescu expressed hope that the statements might prove nothing more than "a passing accident" on the "common future in a united Europe." MS

TRANSDNIESTER STOPS RECOGNIZING DOCUMENTS ISSUED BY MOLDOVAN AUTHORITIES
Separatist leader Igor Smirnov issued a decree on 30 December that unilaterally halts the mutual recognition of documents between Moldovan and Transdniestrian authorities, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported on 3 January. According to the decree, status documents such as birth and marriage certificates, diplomas, and documents attesting to ownership rights will now have to be officially notarized in Transdniester in order to be valid in the breakaway region. Smirnov claimed the decision was prompted by Moldova's refusal to abide by a 2001 agreement on the mutual recognition of documents. MS

BULGARIAN OPPOSITION CHIDES GOVERNMENT FOR 2003 ACTIVITIES
Conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) Deputy Chairman Emanuil Yordanov told BTA on 31 December that the only positive aspect of the Bulgarian government's work in 2003 was the approval of constitutional amendments to usher in major judicial reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September 2003). Yordanov added that despite their limited and insufficient range, such amendments demonstrate that the Bulgarian Constitution can be improved upon and adapted to the realities of life. He said the government should concentrate on anticrime legislation in 2004, given that a war among organized-crime groups that began in mid-2002 continued in 2003. Rumen Ovcharov, deputy chairman of the supreme council of the opposition Socialist Party (BSP) focused his criticism on Bulgarian casualties in Iraq and the ongoing trial of six Bulgarian medics in Libya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December and 9 September 2003, respectively). Ovcharov also decried continued gangland-style shootouts and killings in Sofia. He further asserted that no substantial progress was made in the country's economic and social development. Ovcharov and Yordanov both conceded that the country made important steps toward NATO and EU membership, although Ovcharov said that progress was made despite the government, not because of it. UB

BULGARIAN SOLDIERS DECLINE TOUR IN IRAQ
As many as 30 Bulgarian troops have refused to be deployed to Iraq, where they were slated to replace colleagues within Bulgaria's 500-strong contingent participating in the U.S.-led stabilization effort, "The New York Times" reported on 3 January. The Bulgarian daily "Sega" meanwhile put the number at more than 40, saying the figure could be even higher. "Between 25 and 30 soldiers have declined duty, probably as a result of pressure from their families," Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev told Bulgarian Radio Horizont on 2 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 29 December 2003). Kolev said soldiers may withdraw from the voluntary contingent, but he added that they must subsequently reimburse the Bulgarian state for related training and medical fees. Some troops within the contingent demanded on 2 December that a clause be added to their contracts stipulating that they may pull out of the mission and return home at any time, according to "The New York Times." Equipment for the planned replacement contingent was sent to Iraq on 4 January. UB

FIVE YEARS AFTER LIBERAL RUSSIAN DEPUTY'S SLAYING, THE TRIAL BEGINS
After a five-year investigation, the case of the November 1998 murder of liberal State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova was finally handed over to a St. Petersburg court at the end of November. The case was expected to be the first in the city to be heard by a jury, and Starovoitova's acolytes say she long dreamt that juries would become the norm in Russia, because she believed this is the best method for reaching fair and unbiased verdicts. But such hopes were dashed on 19 December, when the St. Petersburg Municipal Court ruled that a jury trial "would not be expedient" for such a case. The trial, which began on 5 January, is open to journalists, however.

After investigating the case for five years, the Federal Security Service (FSB) believes that it has identified Starovoitova's murderers and their accomplices. However, it now seems increasingly unlikely that the person or persons who ordered the assassination will ever be known.

In the current trial, six suspects are charged with committing "an act of terrorism or attempt to assassinate a state or public official so that she would cease carrying out her state or other political activities or in revenge for such activity." Such a formulation of the indictment underscores the importance of the Starovoitova case for Russian political history. A study of the case materials provides ample evidence that investigators carried out a serious and thorough investigation, leading to the arrests of the six suspects. However, the failure to identify those ultimately behind the murder continues to raise concern.

For three years now, Ruslan Linkov -- who was Starovoitova's assistant in 1998 and who was severely injured during the attack on her, has claimed that FSB investigators know who ordered her murder. However, he says, they cannot do anything about it because there is no political will to do so at the federal level. Former State Duma Deputy Yulii Rybakov has publicly alleged that the roots of the case are to be found in Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), noting that many of the arrested suspects are LDPR members.

Starovoitova's older sister, Olga Starovoitova, alleged in an interview in November 2002 that Zhirinovskii himself can be connected to the killing, although she retracted the allegation quickly after Zhirinovskii said on Ekho Moskvy that she "should calm down so that she doesn't have any problems in the future."

The suspects now facing trial are Yurii Kolchin, who was a Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) officer at the time of the murder; Igor Lelyavin; Vitalii Akishin; Igor Krasnov; Anatolii Voronin; and Yurii Ionov. All six have been identified as natives of the Bryansk Oblast village of Dyadkovo, according to local media reports. According to Linkov's lawyer, Yurii Shmidt, Krasnov, Voronin, and Ionov have confessed to the charges, but they maintain that they were not aware that they were killing a State Duma deputy. Two other suspects, Sergei Musin and Oleg Fedosov, remain at large.

According to the FSB case, on the night that Starovoitova was killed -- 20 November 1998 -- Kolchin stood outside her apartment building on Griboevdov Canal, waiting for Musin to call from Pulkovo Airport with information that Starovoitova had arrived on a flight from Moscow. After the call came, the alleged killers -- Akishin and Fedosov -- began to get ready. According to the FSB, Fedosov was disguised as a young woman.

The alleged killers then entered the staircase of the building, where they encountered Starovoitova and Linkov. They fired several shots from a Croatian-made Agran-2000 long-barreled handgun, which was left at the scene of the crime. Ionov then allegedly drove them away. Voronin allegedly dumped the killers' clothing into a river. Investigators also allege that Voronin monitored Starovoitova's telephone calls and handed over information from them to those plotting the killing. Investigators have not yet clarified Krasnov's alleged role in the slaying.

On 19 December, the Prosecutor-General's Office filed a request with "a European country" for the extradition of two additional, unidentified suspects who were allegedly involved in planning the murder, Russian media reported on 20 December. One of the two new suspects was described as an "organizer" of the crime, while the other was called a "technical executor." Linkov has also said that a third suspect, whom he described as "a middle man," whose name is known to investigators is being sought. "I have a feeling that [the third suspect] is hiding and blackmailing investigators and the authorities," Linkov said.

If Linkov's speculation is true, it could only mean that this "middle man" is someone with links to federal-level officials. Several years ago, Linkov called for investigators to question then-St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who has since been named deputy prime minister, and then-State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev. Both men, Linkov said, were the subjects of corruption cases that Starovoitova was investigating at the time of her murder.

However, the fact that the influence of these two figures has fallen significantly in the last couple of years would seem to indicate that neither is the one the so-called middle man might be blackmailing. Despite being five years old, the Starovoitova case clearly still has the power to shake up the Russian political scene, if only on the level of rumor and speculation.

Vladimir Kovalev covers local politics for "The St. Petersburg Times" in St. Petersburg, Russia.

LOYA JIRGA APPROVES NEW AFGHAN CONSTITUTION...
Afghanistan's Constitutional Loya Jirga formally ratified a new landmark constitution in a plenary vote on 4 January, meeting a major goal of the internationally backed Bonn process and potentially paving the way for democratic presidential elections scheduled for June, RFE/RL reported. The constitutional assembly's chairman, former Afghan President Sebghatullah Mojadeddi, called for approval of the document by asking the 502 delegates gathered at a massive tent in Kabul to stand in order to signal their endorsement. Correspondents quoted by RFE/RL and international news agencies reported that an overwhelming majority did so. Mojadeddi said behind-the-scenes negotiations led to a breakthrough on disputes that had threatened to derail the assembly, which spent 16 days amending and debating a document to replace a revised 1964 constitution that came back into force as part of the December 2001 Bonn agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003). AT

...EARNING CAUTIOUS PRAISE FROM UN, U.S.
The UN's special representative to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, called the ratification of the Afghan Constitution a "huge success for the people of Afghanistan," but added that work remains to heal the "bruises" sustained during debates along ethnic and factional lines over the past three weeks, RFE/RL reported on 4 January. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the approval of the constitution a "historic achievement," the BBC reported on 5 January. U.S. President George W. Bush, whose administration toppled Afghanistan's largely unrecognized Taliban regime in late 2001, said the new constitution will help pave the way for a "democratic Afghanistan [that] will serve the interests and just aspirations of all of the Afghan people and help ensure that terror finds no further refuge in that proud land," according to the BBC. Brahimi warned that while Afghanistan has managed to approve a new constitution, "there is no rule of law in this country yet." AT

AFGHAN LEADER APPEARS TO HAVE WON THE DAY
According to an unofficial copy of the Afghan Constitution obtained by RFE/RL, Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA) Chairman Hamid Karzai and his foreign supporters secured a victory by retaining a strong presidency under the new document. In that respect, the new constitution differs little from the draft released in November that called for a strong presidency despite rival calls -- particularly among former mujahedin parties -- for a parliamentary system with greater checks on the powers of the head of state (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 November and 16 December 2003). Karzai had vowed that he would not run for president in the elections scheduled for June if the constitution prescribed a parliamentary system. The new draft adds a second vice-presidential post, however -- with both vice presidents selected by the president. None of the presidential powers contained in the November draft has been reduced. AT

AFGHAN NEWS AGENCY SAYS WASHINGTON TALKING TO FORMER TALIBAN
A purported dialogue between the United States and moderate elements of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime has "entered into a serious stage," Hindukosh news agency reported on 4 January. According to the report, talks are continuing at an undisclosed location without the involvement of any third party. The aim of the talks is reportedly an effort to include moderate former Taliban in the fledgling political process in Afghanistan. Sources purporting to speak on behalf of the former Taliban regime have denied the existence of such talks, the news agency added. ATA Chairman Karzai said in April that a "clear line" must be drawn between "the ordinary Taliban, who are real and honest sons of this country," and those "who still use the Taliban cover to disturb peace and security in the country." His efforts to bring members of the former Taliban regime openly into the political process faced strong opposition from members of his own administration (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003). AT

AGREEMENT SIGNED ON U.S. FINANCING OF TAJIK-AFGHAN BRIDGE
Tajik Transport Minister Abduzhalol Salimov and U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland have signed an agreement on U.S. financing for the construction of a bridge linking Tajikistan and Afghanistan across the Pyandzh River, the official Tajik news agency Khovar reported on 5 January. The United States agreed in principle last year to finance construction of the bridge, and U.S. construction specialists have already inspected the site. BB

IRAN'S CAPITAL TO MOVE?
Iranian Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said on 4 January that the SNSC concluded at its last meeting that a plan to change the location of the capital because Tehran lies on a seismic fault merits consideration, state television reported. Rohani said the SNSC proposed moving the capital for the same reason in the year beginning 21 March 1991, but other state institutions refused to cooperate. "Therefore, the plan was left in abeyance," he said. Rohani said the SNSC will debate emergency measures and other long-term plans at its 9 January meeting, and its study of those long-term plans will be completed by 20 March. BS

TEHRAN PROBES BAM CONSTRUCTION
An editorial in the 4 January "Iran News" said that the level of destruction in Bam after the 26 December earthquake is not surprising because most buildings were built of "mud, brick, and unsophisticated construction materials," and they were "anything but earthquake resistant." The real question, according to the daily, is why "all the government buildings in Bam [fell], even though most of them were newly built, erected during the last few years, and supposedly earthquake resistant and compliant with [modern] construction standards." The editorial added that building practices that fall below international standards can be found throughout the country, and it ascribed this to "widespread corruption in the system, a lack of professionalism, incompetence, a lack of an acceptable construction oversight procedures, contractors who do not have the technical expertise to build according to prevalent international building standards, etc." Mohammad Sattarifar, head of Iran's Management and Planning Organization, said on 31 December that the judiciary will be informed about contractors and builders who are determined to have violated construction regulations in Bam, IRNA reported. He added that the MPO will report on the reasons why many buildings collapsed, particularly governmental and public-sector buildings. BS

TEHRAN PROVIDES STATISTICS ON PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATES
Executive boards, local bodies charged with vetting potential parliamentary candidates, have approved the candidacies of nearly 93 percent of the 1,844 applicants for the upcoming parliamentary elections, IRNA reported on 3 January. The executive boards rejected 5.4 percent of the applicants, and 1.77 percent of the applicants withdrew voluntarily. Rejected applicants have four days to appeal to provincial governors' offices. BS

IRAN'S EXECUTIVE BRANCH LOOKS INTO BIASED CANDIDATE INVESTIGATIONS
Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari complained on 4 January that the information provided by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the police, the Justice Ministry, and the Department of Personal Records about potential parliamentary candidates was not always factually based, state radio reported. The previous day, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami sent a letter to the Constitutional Supervisory Board in which he noted that "some institutions have gone beyond the purview of their prerogatives" when describing potential applicants, state television reported. Khatami wrote that electing and getting elected are rights, and that "such principles cannot be interpreted on the basis of guesswork or one's own biased interpretations." "Such rights can only be denied to an individual on the basis of strong documentary and legal evidence," he added. BS

TEHRAN DENIES HOSTING AL-QAEDA LEADERSHIP
Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi denied on 3 January that Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri is in Iran, state television reported. "Al-Qaeda knows Iran is no safe place to take shelter in," he said. Two days earlier, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied that an aide to al-Zawahiri had been arrested, according to state radio. "Al-Sharq al-Awsat," an Arabic-language daily based in London, had reported on 29 December that according to fundamentalists in the British capital, Al-Qaeda special action committee head Ahmad Hassan Abu-al-Khair had been detained in Iran. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) spokesman Masud Jazayeri denied in the daily newspaper "Resalat" on 1 January that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is in Iran and the IRGC is facilitating his movements. Jazayeri described the report as a fabrication intended to sully Iran's international reputation. Jazayeri was responding to a 26 December report in the "Financial Times" that an unidentified person with links to the IRGC and the MOIS said he saw bin Laden and al-Zawahiri at an IRGC guesthouse west of Tehran on 23 October. BS

PURPORTED BIN LADEN TAPE CRITICIZES IRAQI OCCUPATION
In an audio recording broadcast by Al-Jazeera on 4 January, a speaker the station identified as Osama bin Laden urges Muslims to continue fighting "conspirators against Muslim nations." The speaker also criticizes Arab governments for failing to resist U.S. military and diplomatic moves in the Middle East, and makes reference to the 14 December capture of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, suggesting the audiotape was made recently. The speaker refers in specific terms to the occupation of Iraq and attacks Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council for welcoming members of the U.S.-installed interim Iraqi Governing Council. He also criticizes moves to change educational curricula in Muslim countries, and warns of a religious and economic war by the West aimed at dominating other Persian Gulf countries after the occupation of Iraq. MH

WILL U.S. BEGIN POWER TRANSFER IN IRAQ AHEAD OF FINAL PLAN?
Washington will formally launch the handover of power in Iraq this week with no final plan yet in place, washingtonpost.com reported on 4 January. The complicated political, economic, and security transfer will commence with a general outline and a 30 June deadline for completion, the website added. According to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, critical details are still being negotiated between Iraqis and U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer. The deadline, set by a 15 November agreement between coalition forces and the Iraqi Governing Council, is 28 February for agreement on questions such as the role of Islam, leadership of the government, and the role of local leaders within the national framework. One month later, Iraqis will have to determine their future relationship with the United States once the power transfer is complete, according to the framework that Powell said is due to be codified in the recently renamed Transitional Administration Law, the precursor to a formal constitution. MH

EMERGENCY TALKS ARE HELD IN NORTHERN IRAQ FOLLOWING VIOLENT DEMONSTRATIONS...
Seven people were killed and dozens more wounded when violence broke out between Kurds and protesting Arabs and Turkmen in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk on 31 December, AFP reported, quoting Kirkuk police chief Turhan Yussef. The clashes erupted when about 2,000 Turkmen and Sunni Arabs were demonstrating against a drive by the city's Kurdish majority to integrate the northern oil center into a future autonomous Kurdish province. Police said Kurdish peshmerga fighters opened fire on the demonstrators, who appeared to have come from towns around Kirkuk to join the rally near a police academy on the southern edge of the city. Four people were killed during the demonstration, Yussef said. AFP also reported on 1 January that the bodies of two Kurds were found stabbed to death in Kirkuk, and an Arab was killed in clashes with police in separate incidents. Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen leaders in Kirkuk held emergency talks on 1 January with representatives of the Iraqi Governing Council to find ways to quell the latest wave of violence in the area, a senior Kurdish official told AFP. U.S. troops have been maintaining a heavy presence in the city since the beginning of the demonstrations on 31 December, particularly on all roads leading to the Kirkuk offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). MH

...AND U.S. FORCES RAID KURDISH OFFICES
U.S. military officials reported on 4 January that soldiers in the northern city of Kirkuk raided the offices the previous day of two Kurdish political parties that play an important role in supporting U.S. transition efforts, washingtonpost.com reported. U.S. Sergeant Robert Cargie said U.S. troops raided the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PUK after receiving intelligence that those groups were violating restrictions on the possession of weapons. Cargie said soldiers found assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and rockets in the KDP offices, where they arrested an unidentified senior party member. Assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were found in the nearby PUK headquarters, he added. U.S. administrator Bremer recently traveled to the northern city of Irbil for talks with KDP leader Mas'ud Barzani and his PUK counterpart Jalal Talabani about plans for the political transition, including the creation of a federal system, according to Dan Senor, a Bremer spokesman. MH

DEMONSTRATIONS TURN VIOLENT THROUGHOUT IRAQ
A demonstration in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah turned violent on 3 January, prompting coalition forces to move into the streets and restore calm, according to U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, AFP reported. As protesters gathered outside the local governor's house, an unidentified gunman fired into the crowd before fleeing into a nearby building, Kimmitt said. Troops surrounded the building while Iraqi police arrested 20-30 suspects, he told a 4 January news conference. Kimmitt added that another gunman assassinated a local councilman in a town near Al-Basrah on 3 January. U.S. forces and Iraqi police are also investigating the shooting death of three Iraqis, including a child, found in a vehicle on a road near the central Iraqi city of Tikrit on the morning of 3 January, Kimmitt said. He denied speculation that coalition forces had fired upon the vehicle, Al-Jazeera reported. Armed militants have carried out an average of more than one attack a day against Iraqi civilians and security forces during the past week, Kimmitt said, according to AFP. He added that U.S. and allied troops come under attack about 22 times a day. MH

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