FORMER YUKOS-MOSKVA HEAD GOES ON TRIAL...
Vasilii Shakhnovskii, former president of Yukos-Moskva, the Yukos oil giant's head office, went on trial in Moscow's Meshchanskii Raion Court on 14 January on charges of tax evasion and forging documents, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. The Tax Ministry, however, has dropped a civil suit, in which it claimed that Shakhnovskii failed to pay 29 million rubles (approximately $1 million) in taxes in 1998-2000, saying that he paid the bill, plus penalties, at the end of October. Nonetheless, the court rejected a defense request to drop the criminal charges against him. Shakhnovskii was charged with tax evasion in October, after which he stepped down as Yukos-Mosvka's president and was elected to the Federation Council as a representative of Evenk Autonomous Okrug. A regional court later declared his election illegal. Shakhnovskii is among the largest Yukos shareholders, and his personal fortune is estimated at around $1 billion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 October 2003). The Meshchanskii Raion Court will resume hearing the case against Shakhnovskii on 17 January. JB
...AS YUKOS PROTESTS ITS TAX BILL FOR 2000
Yukos spokesman Aleksandr Shadrin said on 14 January that the company has protested the results of a Tax Ministry audit that were presented to the company on 29 December and that concluded the company owes more than 98 billion rubles ($3.4 billion) in unpaid taxes for 2000. "We are demanding that the Tax Ministry not take the company to court for breaking the tax law, which we have certainly not done," Shadrin told Ekho Moskvy. The audit's conclusions, he said, are contrary "to all reasonable legislative norms," including the constitution and the Tax Code, and are "openly biased and accusatory." Yukos is one of Russia's "largest and most conscientious" taxpayers, Shadrin added. In December, Deputy Tax Minister Igor Golikov sent a letter to Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov alleging that Yukos and its affiliates failed to pay 150 billion rubles (about $5 billion) in taxes in 1998-2002 and calling for a criminal investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 30 December 2003). JB
KHAKAMADA ACCUSES PUTIN OF HOSTAGE-CRISIS COVER-UP
Presidential hopeful and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-Chairwoman Irina Khakamada on 13 January posted an open letter to President Vladimir Putin on her personal website (http://www.hakamada.ru) accusing him of covering up the truth about the 23-26 October 2002 Moscow-theater hostage crisis. She said she met with the people who took over the theater during the siege, and she was convinced that they did not plan to blow up the building. She charged that the authorities were not primarily interested in saving the lives of all of the hostages. She alleged that then-presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin ordered her, in a threatening tone, not to interfere in the matter. She also charged that Putin covered up the truth, which she said is a state crime, and that this is why she decided to run for president. She vowed that "when" she becomes president, citizens will find out the truth about the 1999 apartment-building explosions in Moscow and Volgodonsk, as well as about the theater crisis and other possible crimes. The open letter was placed in several mass-media outlets, including "Moskovskii komsomolets" and "Kommersant-Daily," as a paid political advertisement. JAC
YUKOS FIGURE PROMISES HIS SUPPORT FOR KHAKAMADA'S PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
Leonid Nevzlin, a major shareholder in Yukos who has been living in Israel since the Yukos investigations began, has resigned as deputy chairman of the Yukos-funded Open Russia charitable foundation, to work on Khakamada's presidential campaign, grani.ru reported on 14 January. According to Nevzlin, he resigned to avoid conflicts of interest because Open Russia does not engage in political projects. Nevzlin, whose personal fortune is estimated at more than $1 billion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003), said he would provide Khakamada with organizational and financial support within the parameters of election legislation. According to RosBalt on 14 January, Khakamada told reporters in Moscow that she will resign from the SPS if the party at its congress later this month votes not to support her candidacy. JAC
ZHIRINOVSKII: SHOOT SOME CORRUPT OFFICIALS TO TEACH THE REST
Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader and Deputy State Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii weighed in on the fight against corruption during a 14 January joint press conference with LDPR presidential candidate Oleg Malyshkin, Russian media reported. "It is necessary to repeal the moratorium on the death penalty, organize a show trial and shoot, following a court verdict, 10 ministers, 10 deputies, 10 officials, and 10 generals on Lobnoe mesto [the historic Tsarist-era execution site] on Red Square," Zhirinovskii said, according to Interfax. "They'll all be scared; they're easily scared." Zhirinovskii also said Russia should take a harder line abroad. "Georgia should be told that the next time [self-exiled tycoon Boris] Berezovskii's plane is sitting in your airport, you won't have an airport any longer," he said, referring to Berezovskii's trip to Georgia in December, which Russia officially protested. Following that visit, Zhirinovskii called Berezovskii "the coordinator of the anti-Russian line abroad" and predicted he would meet the fate of former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, who was assassinated in Mexico in 1940 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 5 December 2003). JB
U.S. COURT CONSIDERS DEPORTATION OF FORMER RUSSIAN BANKER
The U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, on 14 January began hearing a deportation case against former Russian banker Aleksandr Konanykhine, newsru.com reported. Federal prosecutors argued that Konanykhine, who along with his wife was arrested in December while on his way to Canada, violated the conditions of his stay in the United States, including a requirement that he inform the authorities of any change of address. A lawyer for Konanykhine, however, denied that his attempted trip to Canada, where he planned to ask for political asylum, violated those conditions. The U.S. authorities granted Konanykhine and his wife political asylum in 1999, but the U.S. Justice Department rescinded it in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 January 2004). JB
DEFENSE MINISTER DETAILS CORRUPTION AMONG DRAFT OFFICIALS...
Sergei Ivanov upbraided military commissars in the Siberian Federal District for alleged corruption during a 14 January meeting in Krasnoyarsk, ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti reported. Last year, the number of crimes among the district's military commissariats, which oversee the induction of conscripts, increased by 25 percent, he said. Ivanov said he is particularly concerned about instances of "bribe taking, theft, and falsification," which increased by 44 percent. As a rule, he said, "these crimes are brought to light by the law-enforcement bodies or higher bodies in the military system, while regional military commissars often either fail to deal with the situation or themselves protect the criminals." Ivanov also denounced "the scandalous practice of outright falsification, when military commissars deliberately reduce the actual number of people eligible for conscription to make sure they are comfortably able to fulfill the recruitment plan." The situation in the Novosibirsk military commissariat "is among the worst," Ivanov said. JB
...AND MYRIAD PROBLEMS AMONG DRAFTEES
In his remarks to the Siberian Federal District's military commissars, Defense Minister Ivanov described the situation involving the draft as "far from normal" and called for "the consolidation of the activities of all bodies capable of influencing the military-patriotic education of young people and military-athletic training for conscripts," ITAR-TASS reported on 14 January. The news agency quoted him as saying this will be a "difficult task," requiring "more initiative and creativity from us all." He added that "if we manage to kick start this process, then we won't have to wait for results, and we will spend less time talking about drunks, drug addicts, criminals, and physically inadequate recruits." JB
MOTHERLAND CANDIDATE TO VIE FOR GOVERNOR'S POSITION
Former Airborne Troops Commander and State Duma Deputy Georgii Shpak (Motherland) has submitted documents to run in the 14 March gubernatorial election in Ryazan Oblast, ITAR-TASS reported on 14 January. Shpak will be competing against incumbent Governor Vyacheslav Lyubimov; Ryazan Mayor Pavel Mamatov; local entrepreneur Viktor Melikhin; and Sergei Fedorov, general director of the Ryazan Design and Technological Institute. The Communist Party will again back Lyubimov, who is seeking a third term. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has not yet selected a candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2004). JAC
PROSECUTOR, ACCUSED TO COMPETE IN LOCAL ELECTION
At least nine people have expressed interest in participating in the 14 March gubernatorial election in Koryak Autonomous Okrug, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 15 January. Incumbent administration head Vladimir Loginov has announced that he will seek a second term. In addition, okrug Prosecutor Boris Chuev and Yurii Khnaev, mayor of the okrug capital, Palana, also hope to take part. In November, Chuev filed criminal charges of abuse of office and negligence against Khnaev. According to investigators, Khnaev caused material damage to city finances in the amount of 250,000 rubles ($9,000). Chuev's office, however, has given Khnaev permission to travel outside of the city of Palana to campaign. According to the daily, Loginov is counting on the support of Unified Russia, having helped its candidate, Rafael Gimalov, win in the okrug's single-mandate district in the 7 December State Duma elections. Local observers reckon that Loginov has the best chances of winning. JAC
EDITOR CLAIMS DISMISSAL LINKED TO RUNNING ADVERTISEMENT FOR YUKOS
The former editor in chief of "Tulskie izvestiya," Aleksandr Mesitov, has charged that Tula Oblast Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev fired him for running a paid advertisement for embattled oil giant Yukos that featured a picture of the company's jailed former head, Mikhail Khodorkovskii, izvestia.ru reported on 14 January. Tula Oblast Deputy Governor Nikolai Kalinin denied the allegation. Kalinin told "Izvestiya" that Mesitov was fired because the newspaper's popularity has declined. A new editor, who was not identified, took over the paper on 13 January, Russia's Press Day. JAC
GOVERNOR SAYS 'NO THANKS' TO BECOMING PRIME MINISTER
During an interview with TV-Tsentr host Ivan Karaulov, presidential candidate and former State Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin said that if elected president, he would name Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel as his prime minister, uralpolit.ru reported on 14 January. According to Rybkin, Rossel "has been sitting in the Urals for a long time." Self-exiled tycoon Berezovskii is widely considered to be financially backing Rybkin's campaign, although Rybkin said in a recent interview that he doesn't know if he will receive any money from Berezovskii (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2004). According to the website, Rossel did not respond positively to the news of his possible promotion, calling the report some kind of "black public relations." JAC
ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER PLEDGES CONTINUED DIALOG WITH TURKEY
In a statement issued in Yerevan on 14 January, Vartan Oskanian cited progress in Armenia's relations with Turkey and pledged to "continue the dialog" with Ankara, Mediamax reported. Oskanian noted that "despite the harshly worded statements made by Ankara representatives from time to time, Armenian-Turkish relations were regarded by Turkey as less dependent on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2003 than ever before." Commenting on a recent Turkish proposal to host a trilateral meeting of Armenian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, Oskanian noted that Yerevan has already participated in two such meetings and does not rule out the possibility of future gatherings. RG
WORLD BANK OFFICIAL COMMENDS ARMENIA'S ECONOMIC GROWTH
Roger Robinson, a senior World Bank official based in Yerevan, praised Armenia's macroeconomic performance on 14 January, but cautioned that the government faces a "serious challenge" in combating widespread poverty, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Robinson noted that the 12-year poverty-reduction plan adopted by the government in August, which seeks to reduce the poverty rate to 19 percent by 2015, is a priority in the World Bank's new four-year "country-assistance strategy" (CAS), which is due to be approved in March. According to government statistics, the economy is projected to continue to expand, although more than one-half of the population lives below the official poverty line and unemployment remains high. There have been some indications of increased job creation. Last year's record-high GDP-growth rate of 15 percent was attributed in large part to expansion in the construction sector stemming from a multimillion-dollar cash infusion from the Armenian diaspora. That investment is widely believed to have accounted for a full 6 percent of the country's GDP growth last year. RG
ARMENIAN SCIENTIST WARNS OF SEISMIC VULNERABILITY
The recent earthquake that devastated the southern Iranian city of Bam last month demonstrates Armenia's dangerous vulnerability to earthquakes, a prominent Armenian seismologist stated on 14 January, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Armenpress reported. Warning that there is a danger of "new seismic activities in the entire region," Sergei Balasanian, the president of Armenian Association of Seismologists and Earth Physics, said that "the Caucasus, the Central Asian republics, Pakistan, Iraq, and Turkey are in jeopardy." The warning was dismissed, however, by the country's National Service of Seismic Protection, pointing out that the Iranian epicenter was too far away (1,700 kilometers) from Armenia to have an immediate seismic impact, and noting that Armenian monitoring stations have not detected any signs of increased seismic activity. The danger of earthquakes is an emotional issue for most Armenians since a 1988 earthquake that killed more than 25,000 and left several hundred thousand people homeless. The government has yet fully to rebuild the northwestern regions of the country stricken in that earthquake. RG
ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER COMMENTS ON NATO CONFERENCE DISPUTE...
Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian issued a statement on 14 January after an Armenian military delegation was prevented from boarding a Baku-bound plane in Istanbul en route to a NATO Partnership for Peace Cooperative Best Effort 2004 Exercise planning conference in Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 14 January 2004), RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Yerkir reported. Oskanian condemned the action as "inconsistent with the letter, the spirit, and the premise of the Partnership for Peace program," and expressed Yerevan's expectation that NATO "will demonstrate a principled stance and will undertake the necessary steps to correct this situation." Despite holding a formal NATO invitation and following NATO recommendations for travel, the Armenian delegation was denied entry visas by the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi, forcing the officers to seek visas at the Baku Airport. But a spokesman for the Armenian Defense Ministry alleged that Turkish authorities in Istanbul would not allow them to board the plane bound for Baku without visas. The Armenian delegation is expected to return from Istanbul to Yerevan on 15 January. RG
...AND AZERBAIJANI FOREIGN MINISTER RESPONDS
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev issued a statement on 14 January in response to Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian's statement, Turan and the Azerbaijan State News Agency reported. Guliev dismissed Oskanian's criticism and claimed that Azerbaijan "did not erect any obstacles to the participation [in the NATO conference] of the Armenian delegation." Guliev accused Armenia of implementing "policies and actions" that "undermine regional security." RG
AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT TO ATTEND GEORGIAN INAUGURATION
Ilham Aliyev on 13 January announced plans to attend the 25 January inauguration of Georgian President-elect Mikhail Saakashvili, Turan reported. Aliyev also announced that he will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell during the visit to Tbilisi. RG
AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION LEADER MEETS WITH ISRAELI DIPLOMAT
Opposition Musavat Party leader Isa Qambar met on 13 January with Ya'akov Finkelstein, second secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Azerbaijan, Turan reported. Qambar briefed the Israeli diplomat on the state of postelection politics and human rights in Azerbaijan. RG
POSSIBLE ASSASSINATION PLOT AGAINST GEORGIAN PRESIDENT-ELECT REVEALED
Minister of State Zurab Zhvania told reporters on 14 January that Georgian law enforcement bodies have discovered a possible plot to assassinate President-elect Saakashvili, "The Georgian Times" reported. Zhvania explained that Interior Minister Georgi Baramidze has reported that police guarding the presidential residence found a "camouflaged place to be used by a sniper." Zhvania said the purported plot was part of "an attempt to destabilize the situation in Georgia." RG
GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES APPOINTMENTS...
Parliament deputies voted on 14 January to approve two new appointments, Civil Georgia reported. The appointments of Irakli Rekhviashvili as economy minister and of Irakli Okruashvili as prosecutor-general were endorsed. Rekhviashvili, who is just 28 years old, previously worked on the local-government- and public-service-reform initiative of the Open Society Institute in Budapest, and only returned to Georgia on 13 January. Okruashvili, a member of President-elect Saakashvili's National Movement Party, was recently appointed governor of Shida Kartli region, but has already become well known for a vigorous campaign targeting criminal activity in the region. RG
...AND ADOPTS NEW NATIONAL FLAG
The parliament also adopted a new national flag, which was previously used by President-elect Saakashvili's National Movement as a party banner, Civil Georgia reported. The new flag -- a white field with a centered red cross and four smaller crosses in the corners -- replaces the dark red, black, and white flag that was adopted by the first independent Georgian republic in 1918 and which was restored after Georgia's regained its independence in 1991. Some deputies stormed out of the parliament chamber to protest the approval of the National Movement banner as the national flag. RG
EUROPEAN UNION OFFICIAL ARRIVES IN TBILISI
EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana arrived in Tbilisi from Iran on 14 January to begin a two-day official visit, according to the website of Rustavi-2 television. Solana stated that the main purpose of his visit is to review the current situation in Georgia and expressed a willingness to discuss Georgia's prospects for greater integration into European institutions. Official meetings with senior government officials are to begin on 15 January. RG
KAZAKH GOVERNMENT FORMS WORKING GROUP ON SHADOW ECONOMY
First Deputy Prime Minister Grigorii Marchenko announced in Astana on 14 January that the government has set up a working group to make recommendations regarding legalizing the shadow economy, gazeta.kz reported. The group held its first meeting on 14 January, RIA-Novosti reported. Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov told the meeting that the issue of legalization is urgent because the shadow economy accounts for 22 to 30 percent of the country's GDP. It is particularly important in agriculture, construction, medicine, education, restaurants, transport, and wholesale and retail trade. The group was given two months to devise measures to reduce the influence of the shadow economy and, as Akhmetov put it, "to bring business out of the shade." BB
BUGS REPORTEDLY FOUND IN KYRGYZ PARLIAMENTARY OFFICES
Listening devices have reportedly been found in the offices of two prominent members of the Kyrgyz Legislative Assembly (lower house of parliament), Interfax and other Kyrgyz and Russian media reported on 14 January. State Security Committee Chairman General Ismail Isakov told journalists that his conversations with members of the government have been secretly recorded for about two years. The journalists were then invited to the office of prominent opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov, chairman of the Judicial Committee, to view a "bug" that was allegedly found behind a radiator. BB
SIX KYRGYZ OPPOSITION PARTIES UNITE, WILL BACK SINGLE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
Six Kyrgyz opposition parties -- Asaba, Kairan El, the Democratic Movement Kyrgyzstan, ErK, Erkindik, the Republican Party, and Young Kyrgyzstan -- have united into an election bloc called For People Power, party representatives announced at a press conference in Bishkek on 14 January, kabar.kg and akipress.org reported. Other opposition parties and individuals were invited to join the bloc, which intends to nominate a candidate for the 2005 presidential election. The bloc will also seek to ensure that the presidential and parliamentary elections are conducted fairly. Opposition parliamentarian Beknazarov told reporters that the U.S. Embassy encouraged the formation of the bloc, and that the U.S. State Department has invited prominent Kyrgyz opposition politicians to Washington. BB
NEW HEAD OF KYRGYZ PRESIDENTIAL FOREIGN-POLICY DEPARTMENT NAMED
Alikbek Dzhekshenkulov, a former first deputy foreign minister, was appointed on 14 January to take over the foreign-policy department in the president's office, akipress.org and other Kyrgyz media reported. Since 2000, Dzhekshenkulov has served as Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the OSCE and, concurrently, ambassador to Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. His predecessor in the foreign-policy department was Askar Aitmatov, who is now foreign minister. BB
BAPTIST MISSIONARY KILLED IN NORTHERN TAJIKISTAN
Sergei Besarab, a Baptist missionary and pastor of a church in the northern Tajik town of Isfara, was shot dead in his church on 12 January, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 14 January, quoting a press release from the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. The Interior Ministry said it has sent a special team headed by Deputy Interior Minister Said Zhorakulov to Isfara to investigate. BB
TURKMEN PRESIDENT PROPOSES OIL PIPELINE ACROSS IRAN
Saparmurat Niyazov has proposed to Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who is currently visiting Ashgabat, that Iran consider constructing a pipeline to transport Turkmen oil across Iran to the Persian Gulf for export, turkmenistan.ru reported on 15 January. Kharrazi told journalists after his meeting with Niyazov that Iran would like to increase the amount of oil transited from Turkmenistan, and also would like to double its annual trade turnover with Turkmenistan to $1 billion. Niyazov also tried to interest Kharrazi in helping to develop Turkmenistan's petrochemical industry, particularly plastics production. The two sides also exchanged views on the still-unresolved issue of the legal status of the Caspian Sea. BB
UZBEKISTAN IMPOSES IMPORT DUTIES ON FOOD
Uzbekistan imposed import duties on a number of food products as of 1 January, Interfax reported on 13 January, noting that the decree that imposed the duties was published in the domestic media that day. The 5 percent duty applies to tea; soybeans; vegetable oils; and many dairy, meat, and fish products. A 10 percent import duty was placed on processed meats. The duties are intended to provide additional protections for domestic producers, according to an unnamed source in the Uzbek State Customs Committee. BB
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT REPEATS THREATS OVER GDP GROWTH
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told his government on 14 January that he will be strictly monitoring the government's progress toward achieving 10 percent economic growth in 2004, as he decreed last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November and 4 December 2004), Belapan reported. Lukashenka reportedly warned that a failure to meet this economic target would entail "immediate staff decisions." Some analysts believe Lukashenka's push for economic growth is a carrot for the electorate in exchange for granting him a third term in office in 2006, which is currently forbidden for him by the constitution (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 25 November 2003). JM
JEWISH LEADER PROTESTS 'STATE-SPONSORED ANTI-SEMITISM' IN BELARUS
Police detained the chairman of the World Association of Belarusian Jewry in front of the presidential administration building in Minsk on 14 December, shortly after Yakov Goodman unfolded a placard to protest what he calls "state-sponsored anti-Semitism" in Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. "I undertook this action because [authorities] destroyed a synagogue on Dzimitrava Street two years ago," Goodman told RFE/RL. "Now excavators are concluding the demolition of Khalodnaya Synagogue [in Minsk], which was founded in 1570. This past summer, construction work was conducted on two Jewish cemeteries in Mazyr. A month ago, also in Mazyr, someone destroyed the memorial sign I placed at the site where a group of Jews, including my grandfather, burnt themselves in 1941." The same day, a district court issued an official warning to Goodman for staging an unauthorized demonstration. JM
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT CONCLUDES SESSION IN TURMOIL
Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn closed the fourth session of the Verkhovna Rada one day early on 15 January due to the ongoing blockade of the parliamentary rostrum by opposition deputies, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The Our Ukraine, Socialist Party, and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc parliamentary caucuses are protesting the 24 December vote that preliminarily approved a constitutional-reform bill calling for the election of the president by parliament in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). Those parties are seeking a direct presidential vote. The next session of the Verkhovna Rada is planned to start on 2 February, when the pro-government parliamentary majority is expected to push for the final adoption of the constitutional-reform bill, which requires 300 votes in the 450-seat chamber. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SAID TO BE ASPIRING TO 'INTERIM' TERM
Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko told journalists on 15 January that the pro-government parliamentary majority is seeking to make President Leonid Kuchma an "interim president" in 2004-06, UNIAN reported. Yushchenko said the majority is set to support the constitutional-reform plan preliminarily approved on 24 December, which stipulates the election of a president by direct ballot in 2004 and then by parliament beginning in 2006. Yushchenko quoted Nestor Shufrych, head of the Social Democratic Party-united parliamentary caucus, as saying that the pro-government majority and the Communist Party are 10 votes shy of the 300 deputies required to adopt the constitutional-reform bill and intend to "obtain" these votes from Our Ukraine deputies. Yushchenko added that Kuchma could even become an "interim president" until 2009, following a decision by the Constitutional Court. Last month, the Constitutional Court ruled that Kuchma may run for the presidency in 2004 despite a two-term limit in the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January 2004). JM
UKRAINIAN COMMUNIST LEADER EXPLAINS ALLIANCE WITH 'BOURGEOISIE'
Communist Party head Petro Symonenko has disseminated a statement explaining why his organization supported the constitutional-reform bill that was preliminarily approved on 24 December, Interfax reported. Symonenko declares that the Communist Party is pushing for a radical reform of the country's political system through constitutional amendments. "[Such changes] can be achieved in a constitutional way only as a result of coordinating positions with other political parties and structures that are represented in parliament, including those protecting the interests of bourgeoisie," the statement reads. Symonenko stresses that the Communists oppose both a plan for parliamentary election of the president in 2004 and a possible third term for Kuchma. JM
ESTONIA'S 2003 STATE-BUDGET REVENUES HIGHER THAN EXPECTED
The Finance Ministry announced on 14 January that 41.25 billion kroons ($3 billion) in state-budget revenues were collected in 2003, which exceeded forecasts by 4.28 percent, LETA reported. Social-security tax receipts totaled 14.26 billion kroons (1.57 percent higher than forecasts); value-added-tax (VAT) revenues totaled 11.2 billion kroons (2.44 percent higher than projections); personal income taxes were 6.06 billion kroons (18 percent higher); and excise taxes were 4.16 billion kroons (1.62 percent higher). The collection of 2.2 billion kroons in corporate-income taxes exceeded expectations by 59 percent, primarily due to higher-than-anticipated tax income from dividends. Lower-than-projected receipts were received from nontax resources such as foreign assistance, including EU structural funds, which amounted to 1.39 billion kroons, or just 73.79 of that expected. SG
LATVIA POSTPONES DECISION ON BANNING COMMUNISTS FROM EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTIONS
The parliament's Legal Committee on 14 January postponed a decision on whether to recommend that former KGB agents and persons who continued to be members of the Communist Party after January 1991 be banned from running for the European Parliament, BNS reported. Justice Minister Aivars Aksenoks suggested the decision be delayed following criticism by three human rights experts -- including National Human Rights Office head Olafs Bruvers -- of the initiative contained in the country's Europarliament election bill. The parliament's Legal Office has stated that such restrictions are "constitutionally disputable" and could be contradictory to both EU laws and the Latvian Constitution. Parliament is to vote on 22 January on the final reading of the Europarliament election bill, whose second reading it approved last year. Two Latvian citizens -- Tatyana Zhdanoka and Janis Adamsons -- have already complained to the European Court of Human Rights over similar restrictions in Latvia's parliament and local-election laws. SG
LITHUANIAN IMPEACHMENT COMMISSION QUESTIONS PRESIDENT'S MAIN SPONSOR
The parliamentary commission formed to investigate the possibility of impeaching President Rolandas Paksas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2003) on 14 January spent nearly six hours questioning Yurii Borisov, the most significant financial backer of Paksas's election campaign, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. The Constitutional Court recently ruled that Paksas violated the constitution by granting Lithuanian citizenship to Borisov, and the Migration Department has requested his deportation from the country. While one of the president's lawyers, Gediminas Baublys, said that Borisov's testimony helped refute the charges against Paksas, commission Deputy Chairman Julius Sabatauskas said Borisov refused to answer some questions on the grounds that he already provided testimony to the Prosecutor-General's Office. Borisov told reporters that he will appeal the decision to deport him. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis told Paksas on 14 January that the Foreign Ministry will delegate former Ambassador to Latvia Petras Vaitiekunas to work as the president's main foreign-policy adviser. Vaitiekunas previously refused to serve in that capacity as a presidential appointee (see RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2003). SG
POLISH PROSECUTORS ISSUE ARREST WARRANTS OVER 1981 MARTIAL-LAW MASSACRE
Prosecutors from the Katowice branch of the National Remembrance Institute have issued arrest warrants for two former riot policemen suspected of having fired at miners at the Wujek coal mine in Katowice on 16 December 1981, shortly after the introduction of martial law, PAP reported on 15 January. Nine miners were killed in the so-called Wujek massacre. The former riot policemen, Jan Prosowski and Roman Schmidt, left Poland for Germany in early 1990s, where they obtained German citizenship. JM
CZECH CABINET APPROVES TROOP DEPLOYMENT TO AFGHANISTAN
The government approved a proposal from Defense Minister Miroslav Kostelka on 14 January to send 150 soldiers, including some 120 "elite reconnaissance specialists," to Afghanistan to participate in U.S.-led efforts to provide security and to track down neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements, CTK and dpa reported. Thirty Czech soldiers would participate in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul and its vicinity. The proposal still must be approved by parliament. Kostelka said he discussed his proposal with President Vaclav Klaus before submitting it to the government. The deployment would mark the first time since World War II that Czech troops have been sent into combat, the daily "Pravo" noted. MS
CZECH PREMIER NAMES CSSD CANDIDATE FOR EU COMMISSIONER
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla on 14 January named former Environment Minister Milos Kuzvart as his party's candidate for the position of European commissioner, adding that he expects Kuzvart to be the country's sole candidate, CTK and "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported. Kuzvart is currently a parliamentary deputy representing Spidla's senior coalition Social Democratic Party (CSSD). The opposition Civic Democratic Party has already selected a former environment minister, Bedrich Moldan, as its candidate for that post. According to CTK, the junior coalition Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) and Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) are not satisfied with Kuzvart's nomination. The KDU-CSL nominated Judge Ivana Janu for the post. The US-DEU has not named a candidate of its own, but said it expected a better choice. Both junior coalition parties denied Spidla's claim that the ruling three-party, center-left coalition agreed that the CSSD, as the strongest party, has the right to appoint a candidate to the post. President Klaus signaled his apparent lack of interest, saying that Kuzvart's designation is "no reason to go on a hunger strike." Leaders of the coalition are expected to try and agree on a joint candidate next week. The official nomination must be made to European Commission President Romano Prodi by the end of this month. MS
CZECH LOWER HOUSE OVERRIDES SENATE VETO ON LABOR CODE
The lower house overrode a veto by the Senate and passed an amendment to the Labor Code that sanctions sexual harassment at place of work, the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported on 15 January. The upper house has objected to what it said was insufficient clarity in the definition of sexual harassment, which is defined as sexual behavior which is justifiably perceived as "unwelcome, inappropriate or insulting." The burden of proof is placed on the person accused of sexual misconduct. The Senate had expressed concern that the legislation would be abused. It is now to take effect as of 1 March. MS
CZECH PRESIDENT VISITS SLOVAKIA
President Klaus paid a visit to the eastern Slovak town of Kosice on 14 January at the invitation of his Slovak counterpart Rudolf Schuster, who is the former mayor of that town, CTK reported. Both men agreed that relations between their countries are very good, as evidenced by frequent high-level visits. Schuster said he and Klaus discussed issues of mutual concern, including relations with the EU and problems facing the Romany minorities in the Czech and Slovak republics. MS
NEW SLOVAK PARTY DEMANDS PREMIER'S OUSTER BEFORE IT CONSIDERS JOINING COALITION
Free Forum leader Ivan Simko told journalists after meeting with the leaders of the four-party coalition on 14 January that the fledgling Free Forum is willing to join the government only if Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda is replaced, CTK reported. Simko said the Free Forum left the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) because of the premier's authoritarian style of politics and "would be prepared to accept a different candidate [for premiership] from the SDKU." Without the Free Forum deputies, the current center-right coalition has only a minority in the 150-seat parliament. MS
SLOVAK POLICE REPORTEDLY LAUNCH ANTI-EXTREMISM SQUAD
A special unit within the Slovak police force has been set up to fight the spread of neo-Nazi propaganda, CTK reported on 14 January, citing Daniel Milo, head of the League Against Racism. (The report did not include confirmation from official Slovak sources.) Milo said the special force will target Internet providers of neo-Nazi propaganda and literature and neo-Nazi musicians. "The police approach to this kind of crime has become more sensitive," Milo said. "They have realized that this is not just a game played by adolescents." The League Against Racism launched a nationwide antiracism campaign on 14 January called "Take care of your local Nazi." The league estimates that there are some 5,000 active neo-Nazis in Slovakia who commit hundreds of attacks every year. It claims the number of attacks is growing and they are increasingly brutal. MS
HUNGARY'S OPPOSITION LEADER WARNS AGAINST 'PROVOCATEURS'
Viktor Orban, chairman of the senior opposition FIDESZ party, sent a message on 14 January to right-wing civic groups in which he called the burning of an Israeli flag at a recent demonstration against Tilos Radio a deliberate act of provocation, "Magyar Hirlap" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12, 13, and 14 January 2004). Orban asked the groups to dissociate themselves from such acts and isolate the provocateurs if similar cases occur in the future. He also wrote in his message that the symbols of all nations deserve similar respect. One day earlier, FIDESZ parliamentary group leader Janos Ader charged that the burning of the flag could have been done in the interest of the ruling Socialists. Meanwhile, a representative of the Rakosmenti civic group, the main organizer of the demonstration, told the TV2 television network that the Israeli flag had been taken out of the Tilos Radio building and given to the demonstrators. The station's staff rejected what they called a "pitiful new conspiracy theory," "Nepszabadsag" reported. MSZ
SERBIAN LEADER ANNOUNCES PLANS FOR MINORITY GOVERNMENT...
Former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade on 14 January that his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) wants to form a minority government with himself as prime minister, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). Kostunica added that he is continuing negotiations with his likely partners, namely the G-17 Plus party and the coalition of Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and the New Serbia party. Kostunica ruled out any cabinet posts for the Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, saying that it would be an insult to the voters to include any parties that governed before or after the ouster of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. The DSS was part of the governing coalition for much of the post-Milosevic era, and the party that won the most votes in the latest parliamentary election was the Serbian Radical Party (SPS), which was part of the Milosevic regime. Elsewhere, Draskovic officially agreed to Kostunica's proposal. The Democratic Party plans to adopt an official position on 17 January. PM
...WITH MINORITY PARTICIPATION
Kostunica said in Belgrade on 14 January that his proposed cabinet will not have a self-imposed time limit for its mandate, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He added, however, that it might well be time for elections once a new constitution and electoral legislation are in place. Kostunica promised that his government will include unspecified representatives of Serbia's ethnic minorities and the diaspora. In recent days, some leaders of the Vojvodina Hungarians and ethnic Albanians from the Presevo Valley have complained that the minorities' parties are not represented in the new parliament because they failed to make the 5 percent electoral hurdle. Unlike Slovenia and Croatia, Serbia does not have legislative seats reserved for members of ethnic minorities. The Serbian diaspora, unlike its Slovenian and Croatian counterparts, has long generally felt excluded from the political process by most Belgrade politicians. Kostunica is expected to try to conclude coalition talks shortly, because the new parliament must hold its opening session by 27 January. PM
MACEDONIAN, SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCHES CONTINUE TO TRADE ACCUSATIONS
In a letter to Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle has demanded that a former bishop of the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC) who now heads the Serbian Orthodox autonomous Archbishopric of Ohrid be released from detention by the Macedonian authorities, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 13 January. Zoran Vranisovski was detained in Bitola on 11 January, the same day that a court formally charged him with inciting national and religious hatred and intolerance. The formation of the Archbishopric of Ohrid is widely seen as an attempt by the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) to divide the MPC, which split from the SPC in 1957. In his letter, Patriarch Pavle charged that the Macedonian government persecutes Christians as in "communist times." In response, the Holy Synod of MPC declared on 13 January that Patriarch Pavle continues to sow "unrest" within the MPC by meddling in its jurisdiction, Makfax reported. The synod accused the Serbian church leaders of being "lackeys of [Serbian]...national chauvinism and of greater Serbian ideas" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2003). UB
EUROPEAN RADICAL DEPUTY SAYS EU IS RESPONSIBLE FOR ALBANIAN SEA TRAGEDY
In a statement issued in Brussels on 15 January, the European Radical Party, which is one of several multinational political coalitions within the European Parliament, quoted Radical MEP Olivier Dupuis as saying that the recent deaths of at least 21 Albanians in the Adriatic was a consequence of restrictive EU visa policies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2004). "The root cause of this tragedy, and of all the other tragedies that have marked the phenomenon of illegal emigration from Albania in the last few years, is the prohibitionist policy of the member countries of the European Union with regard to visas for Albanian nationals," Dupuis argued. He called on the European Commission to amend regulations to enable "all Albanians to automatically obtain a tourist visa valid for three months throughout the territory of the EU, or at least throughout the so-called Schengen zone." This would be a humane solution that would not significantly raise the number of Albanian migrants, as similar measures for Romanians and Bulgarians have proved, Dupuis argued. He added that a reformed visa policy would be less costly to the EU than its patrol operations in the Adriatic and would help break the power of human traffickers in the Balkans. PM
BUCHAREST TRIBUNAL REGISTERS OPPOSITION ALLIANCE
The Bucharest tribunal on 14 January registered the alliance of the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Party, Mediafax reported. The alliance was registered under the name Justice and Truth PNL-PD and will use the electoral abbreviation "D.A. PNL-PD." The registration became possible after the alliance agreed to change the abbreviated formulation of "Justice-Dreptate" and "Truth-Adevar" in its name from the acronym "DA" (meaning "yes" in Romanian) to "D.A." The Truth and Justice-1989 association, made up of participants of the 1989 uprising, said it will challenge the tribunal's decision before the Court of Appeals (see "RFERL/Newsline," 24 September, 29 October, and 8 and 9 December 2003, and 13 January 2004). MS
HUNGARIAN PARTY IN ROMANIA REITERATES OPPOSITION TO SINGLE-CONSTITUENCY SYSTEM
Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) Chairman Bela Marko said on 14 January that the introduction of a system of single-constituency representation could eliminate the UDMR from the Romanian parliament and thereby generate interethnic tension, Mediafax reported. Marko told journalist that the current proportional-representation system has secured adequate representation in parliament of the country's Hungarian minority. He warned that the situation in Romania might deteriorate into a situation of violent interethnic clashes akin to those in the former Yugoslavia. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase responded that each political party has the right to pursue its own interests and that his Social Democratic Party (PSD) has reached the conclusion that it would be far better represented in parliament if a single-constituency system would be introduced for the Senate elections. Nastase also said that public-opinion polls show that a switch to single-constituency representation is backed by 70 percent of the population and the PSD would face criticism from the electorate if it failed to support the change. MS
ROMANIAN MAYORS TO BE ELECTED IN TWO ROUNDS
The ad hoc parliamentary commission tasked with providing parliament with recommendations for the 2004 elections on 14 January decided that mayors would need 50-percent-plus-one vote to be elected in the first round of the local elections slated for June, Mediafax reported. Failure to garner that support in the first round would lead to a runoff between the top two candidates. Unlike in the 2002 local elections, the 50-percent-plus-one-vote stipulation no longer applies to eligible voters as a whole, but only to those who cast a ballot. The commission also decided to introduce a 5 percent electoral threshold for party representation on local and county councils. MS
MOLDOVA'S 2003 INFLATION RATE NEARLY TWICE THAT PREDICTED
Moldova has registered an annual inflation rate of 15.7 percent for 2003, Infotag reported, citing the government's Department of Statistics and Sociology. This figure is nearly twice as high as that projected by the government. The department said the higher inflation rate is primarily due to a sharp rise in the cost of agricultural products due to extremely adverse weather conditions. In 2002, the inflation rate was 4.4 percent -- the lowest figure registered since Moldova's independence in 1991. MS
FOREIGN MINISTER CAUTIOUS OVER FATE OF BULGARIAN MEDICS IN LIBYA
Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said on 14 January that the government intends to bring home "alive and well" the six Bulgarian medics who are facing trial in Libya on charges they deliberately infected more than 400 children with HIV/AIDS, bTV reported. However, Pasi warned that it is still possible that the medics could be sentenced to death by the Libyan court. Also on 14 January, a government spokesman said the recent demarche by the EU to Libya demanding that the charges against the medics be dropped will not negatively affect Bulgarian-Libyan relations, BTA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). UB
62 BULGARIAN SOLDIERS REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE IN IRAQ MISSION
Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev said in Kazanlak on 14 January that 62 of the 480 soldiers who were to join Bulgaria's second contingent in Iraq have refused to go, BTA reported. The soldiers, who initially volunteered for the mission, backed out due to pressure from their relatives, Kolev said. The backlash is reportedly due to fears following the 27 December bombing that killed five Bulgarian soldiers serving with the first Bulgarian contingent in the central Iraqi city of Karbala. Troops to replace the 62 soldiers will undergo training and are to be deployed to Karbala about a month after the rest of the contingent departs for Iraq this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5, 7, and 8 January 2004). UB
COULD GEORGIA'S 'PEOPLE POWER' PROVE A MODEL FOR REFORM ELSEWHERE?
President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili's victory in the 4 January Georgian presidential election has transformed Georgia into a proving ground for democratization in the reform-starved arc of lands that runs from the Black Sea to China's western frontier. That election represents a consolidation of the political gains that emerged from President Eduard Shevardnadze's forced resignation on 23 November in response to an impressive display of "people power" that harnessed widespread anger and resentment at the falsification of the parliamentary ballot three weeks earlier.
But whether Georgia's "Rose Revolution" is a template for peaceful civic action that has wider application -- or simply an isolated phenomenon that offers limited hope of affecting the rigid regimes that dominate across the non-Baltic former Soviet space -- is not so clear.
In fact, early reactions from the autocrats across the region suggest that, for them, the revolution in Georgia does not seem nearly so rosy. The very aspects of the Georgian revolution in which opposition movements in other countries find inspiration for their own causes, such as the impact of a unified opposition and the transformative power of mass civic action, are precisely those that other regional leaders who place a premium on control find most threatening.
From Ukraine to Uzbekistan, the challenge for reformers in these countries -- and for Western policy makers who are seeking to encourage positive change -- is profound. A short survey of the post-Soviet landscape offers a glimpse of the wide reform gap that must be bridged in order to bring about meaningful political change that can ameliorate growing internal frustration.
Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma, who has cracked down on the independent press and political opposition and is the beneficiary of a ruling in late December from Ukraine's Supreme Court that might allow him to extend his presidential term beyond the constitutionally set two-term limit, observed of developments in Georgia that "Ukrainians are not Georgians." Kuchma went on to say that he is "positive the situation [in Georgia] cannot repeat itself in Ukraine."
In Kyrgyzstan, during a live year-end phone-in on 30 December, President Askar Akaev commented that Georgia "pursued a policy with a predominantly pro-Western orientation in the 1990s. Everyone in the world and in the former Soviet Union knows where this policy led."
Azerbaijan's flawed presidential election last October -- and its violent aftermath -- testifies to the leadership's paranoia in the face of any overt display of popular support for the opposition. Both before and since the ballot, the Azerbaijani authorities have systematically intimidated and harassed opposition parties despite their failure to unite around a single opposition candidate and inability to formulate a clear political message.
In Uzbekistan, the authorities are reportedly seeking to circumscribe the efforts of international assistance organizations working to build basic political openings in that country in advance of the coming election cycle there.
In all of these countries and other former Soviet republics, to one degree or another, the authorities have relied on stale models of control and have yet to craft, let alone begin to implement, democratization strategies that would enable political modernization and engagement of the wider population in political life. Among the principal challenges is the enabling of vibrant civil society, without which there is no stabilizing middle ground between political elites and the public at large.
All eyes now are on the untested leadership that has taken the reins of power in Tbilisi. The high expectations of the Georgian people will pose a considerable test for President-elect Saakashvili, who must find a way to improve the country's poor economic situation and tackle its endemic corruption, while also holding the fragile Georgian state together.
The United States and its partners have made a considerable investment in supporting the civic forces that helped bring about positive change in Georgia.
Preserving those achievements is of the utmost priority for the United States and its allies, especially given the profound desire of the region's autocrats to see the Georgian democratic experiment fail. Russia can make an important contribution by giving the emergence of democracy in Georgia a chance; the West should ensure Russia meets its obligations in this regard.
Events in Georgia have infused reform-minded forces in neighboring countries with a sense of hope. For the political opposition in those countries, the Georgian experience holds promise as a reform model, whereby determined civic action can bring about a rotation of power, and possibly more meaningful political change.
Autocratically inclined leadership in the region, however, are drawing their own conclusions about the Georgian experience, and taking action. Those regimes may well impose even tighter control over political life, media and civic activity in their countries if the United States and its Western allies waver in their firm support for the new government in Tbilisi, or fail to step up their efforts to promote democratization and the emergence of civil society across the Commonwealth of Independent States. Any such failure would, in turn, only compound the risk of internal frustration and disaffection.
Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House (http://www.freedomhouse.org).
AFGHAN DEFENSE MINISTER, EU OFFICIAL DISCUSS SECURITY
Afghan Defense Minister Marshal Mohammad Qasem Fahim met with the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, in Kabul on 14 January. They discussed the promulgation of the country's new constitution, the formation of a national army, general reforms, and disarmament, including the newly mandated program to remove heavy weaponry from Kabul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2003). "I believe there are no factors that should stop the realization of programs meant to bring peace and stability in the country," Fahim told Solana, according to Kabul Bakhtar News Agency. Fahim also underscored the need for EU assistance in the Afghan reconstruction process and stated that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) must expand throughout Afghanistan. While in the Afghan capital, Solana called the heavy-weapons collection program in Kabul "a very symbolic step that the capital is free of heavy weapons." ITAR-TASS reported that Solana also met with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah on 14 January. KM
AFGHAN DEFENSE MINISTRY SAYS MORE THAN 2,500 SOLDIERS HAVE DESERTED
More than 2,500 soldiers have abandoned their duties since the establishment of the Afghan National Army, according to an interview with Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi in "Kabul Weekly" of 14 January. Eighty percent of those who have deserted are soldiers who were recruited from or "even forced to join" by local commanders, according to Azimi. "After the reforms in the Defense Ministry three months ago, the percentage of deserters has dropped to just 2 to 3 percent," he added. There are currently some 9,000 soldiers in the National Army, according to Azimi, and the Defense Ministry is holding meetings with soldiers and other army employees to discern the reasons for the desertions. He said such interviews so far suggest that the problem lies in the fact that most early recruits were received through a mandatory quota system to force local commanders to give up their militias, along with perceived low wages. KM
ROCKETS FIRED AT U.S. BASE IN EASTERN AFGHANISTAN
Approximately a dozen rockets were fired at the main U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan's Khost Province on 14 January, AP reported the next day. A spokesman for the provincial governor said the rockets landed in fields near Khost airport, but that there were no resulting casualties. U.S. military operations against militants and insurgents in Afghanistan are concentrated heavily in Khost and the neighboring Paktika Province. KM
AFGHANISTAN'S ISLAMIC SOLIDARITY COUNCIL CONDEMNS BROADCAST OF FEMALE SINGER'S PERFORMANCE
Clergymen, scholars, and members of the Islamic Solidarity Council on 14 January condemned a recent Kabul TV broadcast that included decades-old footage of a song by Afghan entertainer Salma, according to a report the same day by Herat Television. Meeting at the group's Herat headquarters under the chairmanship of Herat Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan, members "said it was against the laws and regulations of an Islamic republic system" and "asked the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan to prevent the broadcasting of such songs," according to Herat Television. The event marked the first time a female singer's performance has been broadcast over Afghan airwaves in more than a decade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). KM
CZECH CABINET APPROVES TROOP DEPLOYMENT TO AFGHANISTAN
Czech cabinet ministers approved a Defense Ministry proposal on 14 January to send 150 soldiers, including some 120 "elite reconnaissance specialists," to Afghanistan to participate in U.S.-led efforts to provide security and to track down neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements, CTK and dpa reported. Thirty Czech soldiers would participate in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul and its vicinity. The proposal still must be approved by the Czech parliament. Defense Minister Miroslav Kostelka said he discussed his proposal with President Vaclav Klaus before submitting it to the government. The deployment would mark the first time since World War II that Czech troops have been sent into a combat situation, the daily "Pravo" noted. MS
IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER URGES RECONSIDERATION OF BARRED INCUMBENTS
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with members of an election vetting body on 14 January and urged it to reinstate incumbent parliamentarians' right to stand in the upcoming parliamentary elections, Iranian state television reported. Khamenei acknowledged that there is time to hear appeals and the cases should be considered carefully. The council has rejected the eligibility of some 80 current members of the legislature for a variety of reasons, and Khamenei said he has instructed Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati in a message to "authorize the previous status unless there is evidence to the contrary." There should be a presumption of innocence, Khamenei said, rather than a profession of previous uncertainty. "If you are in doubt...go by the previous decisions made in earlier cases by yourself or others," he said. The parliamentarians who have been disqualified "were qualified previously, and now you should qualify them on their previous status. Where there is doubt, base your judgment on authorizing the previous status. This applies to the deputies who were qualified in the previous terms," Khamenei said. BS
IRANIAN LEGISLATORS REFUSE TO END SIT-IN
Tehran parliamentary representative Mohsen Armin said on 14 January that he and other participants in a sit-in at the parliament have decided not to end their protest, ILNA reported. President Mohammad Khatami earlier that day during a closed-door session at the legislature asked them to end the sit-in, which began on 11 January after the Guardians Council ruled that a number of incumbents are ineligible to compete in the February parliamentary election, ILNA reported. At that meeting, parliamentarian Ahmad Burqani told reporters, Khatami reiterated his stance that the disqualifications are not in line with the law and are not substantiated by evidence. The parliamentary presidium decided later on 14 January to have a one-week recess, IRNA reported. BS
IRANIAN THEOLOGIANS AT ODDS OVER CANDIDATE DISQUALIFICATIONS
Reformist cleric Hojatoleslam Mohammad Taqi Fazel-Meibodi said on 14 January that he supports the sit-in at the parliament building and directed heavy criticism at the Guardians Council for disqualifying so many prospective candidates for the February parliamentary election, IRNA reported. He expressed his incredulity at the disqualification of incumbents. Theological instructors and students at Qom's Fayzieh seminary, meanwhile, urged President Khatami not to support individuals who, they claimed, are acting against Iran's national interests, IRNA reported. The protestors said the disqualified legislators have done nothing useful during their four years in office and therefore show no promise for the future. The seminarians also condemned alleged U.S. support for the disqualified incumbents. Another protest took place in Qom on the evening of 13 January, IRNA reported. A protestor told IRNA that people who oppose the vilayat-i faqih (rule of the supreme jurisconsult) and the constitution, and who prioritize the West over Islam, can never represent the people in the legislature. The protestors urged the Guardians Council not to give in to threats because it had fulfilled its religious obligation in disqualifying some current parliamentarians. BS
TEHRAN TELLS WASHINGTON NOT TO INTERFERE
Iranian officials on 14 January denounced recent U.S. government comments about events in their country, Iranian media reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that Iran is proud of the "more than 20 free and sound elections" it has held since 1979 and said they are "in line with the consolidation of the system of religious democracy," IRNA reported. Assefi said the Iranian government will protect the rights of candidates and added that political groups do not want, and will not tolerate, foreign interference. "Despite conspiracies of the enemies, the forthcoming elections for the seventh parliament will be held in full glory, and all of us and the people will take part," Iranian state television quoted Parliament Speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi as saying. Responding directly to the U.S. comments, Karrubi said: "I ask the Americans not to interfere in our affairs; stop meddling and mind your own business. We shall continue our reform process and there is no need for them to defend us." State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli on 12 January said: "We call upon the Iranian government to disavow attempts by the Guardians Council to shape the outcome of the February 20 parliamentary elections" (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2004/28110pf.htm). BS
DANISH TESTS SHOW NO CHEMICAL WARFARE AGENTS IN IRAQI SHELLS
Further testing by Danish and U.S. experts has concluded that there are no traces of chemical warfare agents on mortar shells recently unearthed in southern Iraq, international media reported on 14 January. Initial tests on the shells found traces of blister gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2003). The U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group tested five of the 36 shells, and each came up negative for chemical warfare agents, AP reported, citing a Danish Army statement. Danish troops discovered the shells, dating to the 1980s, outside a village near Qurnah, some 400 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. Danish Army spokesman Captain Kim Vibe Michelsen told AP that the shells were stashed at the site. "They were stacked and ordered and wrapped in plastic. They weren't just lying on the ground." He added that the shells had been buried at least 10 years ago. KR
THOUSANDS OF IRAQI PROTESTORS DEMAND ELECTIONS
Tens of thousands of Iraqis protested in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah on 15 January in support of Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has repeatedly called for nationwide elections in Iraq, international media reported the same day. Protesters chanted "No, no to America -- yes, yes to Sistani," bbc.co.uk reported. Al-Sistani has expressed opposition to a 15 November U.S.-Iraqi Governing Council plan that calls for a transitional national assembly to be elected through regional caucuses by 31 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2003). Meanwhile, the United States and many Iraqi Governing Council members have said it is not feasible to hold direct elections until 2005. However, Western media reported this week that the United States is considering modifications to the 15 November agreement. Deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters on 13 January that "there is discussion on how exactly...the assembly would be selected.... We are engaged with different parties in Iraq on those discussions." KR
IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL APPROVES SHARIA LAW FOR FAMILY COURTS
The Iraqi Governing Council has approved a family law that would make it possible to apply Islamic, or sharia, law instead of civil law to issues such as divorce and inheritance, ft.com reported on 15 January. Iraqi women's groups have reportedly opposed the law, claming that the law is a concession to Islamic clerics. Iraqi Governing Council spokesman Hamid Kifa'i denied that the text is part of a political deal with Iraqi clerics. "It is not a concession to fundamentalists, we don't have fundamentalists in Iraq," ft.com quoted him as saying. Kifa'i added that U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer must still approve the measure, which according to ft.com places the coalition in a sensitive position between Iraqi clerics and secular groups. Women's groups claim that the new law will abolish the 1959 civil law on families, and devolve family law to sectarian religious courts. Kifa'i said civil law will, in fact, remain in effect, adding that the new law simply gives Iraqis the option of using religious courts. KR
CURRENCY-EXCHANGE PROGRAM IN IRAQ DEEMED SUCCESSFUL
The three-month exchange period for Iraqis to trade in their old Iraqi dinars for new banknotes without the image of deposed President Saddam Hussein ended on 15 January, with Iraqi Deputy Central Bank Governor Ahmad Salman Jaburi calling the program a success, according to a 15 January press release posted on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) website. "It's thanks to the thousands of people who have worked with the Central Bank of Iraq -- bank managers and their staff nationwide, coalition planners and economists, and Iraqi and coalition security forces -- that the exchange has been a success," Jaburi said. U.S. civilian administrator Bremer said: "Less than a year into reconstruction, Iraq has completed what it took three years to begin in post-World War II Germany." Coalition officials announced the new currency in early July, and new banknotes were printed and distributed to Iraqi banks by mid-September. The currency exchange was launched on 15 October. For more information on Iraq's new currency, visit the CPA website (http://www.cpa-iraq.org). KR