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Newsline - January 16, 2004

The Moscow Municipal Court on 15 January rejected an appeal by the lawyers of jailed oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovskii seeking to overturn a 23 December decision by Moscow's Basmannyi Raion Court granting a Prosecutor-General's Office request to extend his pretrial detention until 25 March, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003). Khodorkovskii, who participated in the proceedings from his prison cell via closed-circuit television, asked the court to place him under house arrest, insisting he has no reason to hide from the investigators or to influence the investigation. Valerii Lakhtin, who represented the Prosecutor-General's Office, argued that Khodorkovskii should remain incarcerated and that there are no health grounds for his release. After the verdict was handed down, one of Khodorkovskii's lawyers, Genrikh Padva, said his legal team will consider whether to appeal the decision. JB

An unidentified Interior Ministry source reportedly told Interfax on 15 January that two key Yukos shareholders, Leonid Nevzlin and Vladimir Dubov, have been placed on the wanted list. Nevzlin, who has been living in Israel and who was granted citizenship there in November, is accused of evading 26.7 million rubles ($925,000) in taxes in 1999-2000. Dubov, a former State Duma deputy, is accused of large-scale fraud, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 16 January. According to the newspaper, Nevzlin is accused of employing the same tax-evasion scheme allegedly used by former Yukos-Moskva President Vasilii Shakhnovskii, whose trial began on 14 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily," Nevzlin denied he is on the wanted list but said this could change instantly and that sources in the Prosecutor-General's Office and Federal Security Service (FSB) have told him a criminal case is being prepared against him. He denied the tax-evasion charges and suggested the latest moves against him are connected to his recently announced support for Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-Chairwoman Irina Khakamada's presidential bid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). JB

Yukos on 15 January called an extraordinary meeting of Sibneft shareholders at which it plans to elect five Yukos representatives to its erstwhile merger partner's six-member board, "The Moscow Times" reported on 16 January. While Sibneft's shareholders pulled out of the merger with Yukos late last year, Yukos shareholders continue to control 92 percent of Sibneft. Yukos boycotted a Sibneft shareholders meeting planned for 30 December after Sibneft rejected Yukos's nominees to the Sibneft board. Yukos press spokesman Aleksandr Shadrin told "The Moscow Times" that Yukos "must be represented" on Sibneft's board, given its ownership stake, and is also entitled to Sibneft's profits. "Kommersant-Daily" speculated that Yukos sees asserting control over Sibneft as "an effective way to protect itself from the state," which is demanding $3.4 billion from Yukos for taxes it allegedly failed to pay in 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). JB

A lawyer for former Russian banker Aleksandr Konanykhine said on 15 January that the court case involving his client's arrest and possible deportation to Russia "appears to be going our way," "The Moscow Times" reported on 16 January. On 14 January, the first day of hearings in the case at the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, District Judge T. S. Ellis questioned why the U.S. government had rushed Konanykhine's deportation before he could appeal a November ruling that overturned his 1999 political asylum. "I have the firm impression that it is the strong desire of people in the executive branch to return this man to Russia, for what reason I cannot tell," Ellis said, "It stinks." Konanykhine and his wife, who were arrested in December while trying to cross into Canada to request political asylum, were on the verge of being deported to Russia on 22 December when a federal judge ordered a stay of the deportation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13, 14, and 15 January 2004). JB

Sergei Ivanov iterated Russian concerns on 15 January about U.S. plans to establish military bases in Eastern Europe, ITAR-TASS reported. "I have repeatedly said that any relocation of the military infrastructure of the NATO bloc closer to our borders can only evoke a reaction and cause appropriate concern on our part," Ivanov said during a press conference in Omsk. "I think this is understandable to everyone, and there is no use playing the fool and hiding one's head in the sand." Ivanov added that Washington has told the Russian government that "no final decision on the redeployment of a great many Pentagon bases in various regions of the world has been made yet, although various options are being studied and considered." U.S. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman told Russian officials in Moscow in December that Washington wants new NATO members to host U.S. military bases and that it might move some bases to Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland. JB

President Vladimir Putin told Federal Security Service (FSB) employees on 15 January that they must "remain strictly within the limits of their jurisdiction," "be undeviating in their principles," and "rigorously observe the rights of economic entities and citizens" while fighting crime and uncovering "violations in the financial sphere," RIA-Novosti reported. Speaking to an annual meeting of security officials at the FSB's Moscow headquarters, Putin said the FSB's subdivisions have generally "successfully handled their tasks" and thanked its officers for "faithful service" and fulfilling "complicated, sometimes life-threatening tasks." The special services need to be tough in fighting terrorism, he said, also underscoring the need to check the activities of foreign intelligence agencies and to fight organized crime and corruption. He also stressed the need to fight illegal migration, as well as industrial espionage and "other forms of unscrupulous competition." Presidential administration chief Dmitrii Medevedev, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head Sergei Lebedev, and Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev attended the meeting, reported on 15 January. JB

The Economic Development and Trade Ministry presented the cabinet on 15 January with a plan to assign every Russian citizen a personal identification number, RIA-Novosti reported. First Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Andrei Sharonov said the system can be developed by mid-2004 and ready for operation by 2006. According to the plan, citizens will receive a number at birth, or when they receive their passport or get married. The database of numbers will include information about each citizen ranging from, as "Gazeta" put it on 15 January, "what kind of car he has and his salary to his marital status and prior convictions." Lawyers and human rights activists, the newspaper noted, fear that both the state and unscrupulous individual officials could abuse such a system. Lev Levinson of the Human Rights Institute said all aspects of the system, down to the circumstances under which one state agency can provide personal data to another, should be spelled out and regulated. JB

Charges by potential presidential candidate and SPS co-Chairwoman Khakamada that President Putin engaged in a cover-up of the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis have elicited a variety of reactions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004), Russian media reported on 16 January. Most of the mainstream newspapers treated Khakamada's charges in the context of her election campaign rather than as revealing any new information about the theater crisis. The federal television stations -- ORT and RTR -- did not carry any story about Khakamada's accusations; NTV's "Segodnya" program alluded to the fact that she had made "serious" accusations against Putin. "Vedomosti," which declined to print Khakamada's open letter to the president as a paid advertisement, wrote on 15 January that "experts believe Khakamada's appeal may be treated as 'premature campaigning,'" and the newspapers that did print it, "Kommersant-Daily" and "Moskovskii komsomolets," could face fines. "Vedomosti" also quoted Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies as saying that now "if Khakamada is denied registration [as a candidate] because of [invalid] signatures, she can always say this is the Kremlin's revenge for her attitude toward Putin." JAC

"Nezavisimaya gazeta," on the other hand, suggested on 16 January that the hardening of Khakamada's rhetoric signals a fundamental shift in the right wing's strategy since the 7 December State Duma elections. "The liberals' war on the regime is only beginning," the daily declared. Meanwhile, an anti-Putin committee has been formed in Moscow, Valerii Khomyakov, general director of the Agency for Applied and Regional Politics, told reporters. Members of the committee include SPS co-leader Boris Nemtsov, former world chess champion Garri Kasparov, and Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovskii, according to RosBalt on 15 January. Also on 15 January, RosBalt reported that Yabloko's headquarters has sent a letter to its regional branches informing them that they cannot use the party organization or offices to gather signatures to support any presidential candidate. JAC

Khakamada's politicians were less charitable about her open letter to Putin. Fellow presidential hopeful and Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov said he heard a "clear London accent" in Khakamada's published appeal, referring to London-based, self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii, RosBalt reported. The office of Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov called Khakamada's charges an "intolerable and immoral insinuation by a possible presidential candidate," "Izvestiya" reported on 15 January. JAC

Communist Party State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov registered with the Central Election Commission (TsIK) on 15 January as a candidate for president, Russian media reported. Kharitonov is the second candidate to be officially registered. So far, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov has the most money in his election account, RosBalt reported on 15 January. Mironov has some 5 million rubles ($173,370) compared to more than 1 million rubles for Putin and around 1 million rubles for Khakamada. The two candidates who have actually been registered, Kharitonov and Liberal Democratic Party's Oleg Malyshkin, have nothing in their accounts. JAC

Legislators in Bashkortostan on 15 January rejected three candidates nominated to fill the spot of republican prosecutor, RosBalt reported. The vacancy opened up when the previous prosecutor, Florid Baikov, resigned in December in between the first and second rounds of the republican presidential election, citing poor health (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003). Subsequent news reports suggested he had in fact stepped down upon discovering that the printing press owned by the presidential administration had printed up false election ballots. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 16 January, the deputies said the new candidates for the post did not have enough mastery of the particularities of local situation, legislative system, national culture, and traditions. The nominees had served as deputy prosecutors in Altai Krai and Bryansk and Astrakhan oblasts. Under federal law, the federal Prosecutor-General's Office appoints local prosecutors with the consent of the local parliament. Commenting on the legislators' actions, "Kommersant-Daily" concluded it is "obvious that President Rakhimov would like to restore control over the office of the republican prosecutor." The republican legislature is considered by many to be controlled by Rakhimov. JAC

People's Patriotic Union Chairman and Communist State Duma Deputy Gennadii Semigin responded on 15 January to the Communist Party press release issued early this week that accused him of trying to buy parts of the party's apparatus, RBK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). Semigin said the party's leadership is intentionally trying to distort the situation in the party and spread lies about the December party congress. According to Semigin, party members expressed their dissatisfaction at the congress about the results of the December State Duma elections. He said members of the regional party committees evaluated their own work and the activities of the party's leadership critically. He said, however, that this situation was presented "in a completely different light." JAC

The Armenian government unveiled a new plan on 15 January to offer financial incentives to encourage local families to care for children from state-run orphanages, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The plan, coming in the wake of recently imposed restrictions governing the adoption of Armenian children by foreign nationals, would provide a monthly allowance for such families, with the government paying at least 50,000 drams ($90) per child for food costs alone. Deputy Social Affairs Minister Ashot Yesayan said the government is also seeking to forge new measures that would allow for eligible families to care for the orphans without any requirement to adopt them. The option of receiving financial incentives without any requirement for adoption raises fears of potential abuse, however, in cases where families might be tempted by the cash awards to take on more children than they are able or qualified to care for. The plan is said to enjoy the support of foreign donors. The Japanese government is already the single largest contributor, having pledged $960,000 in assistance for the program. RG

In a meeting of the Armenian cabinet on 15 January, oversight of the national forests was withdrawn from the Environment Ministry and placed under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Ministry, Yerkir reported. Senior government officials have criticized Environment Minister Vardan Ayvazian in recent weeks, and he is widely believed to be in danger of losing his post. The Hayantar company, which manages the country's forests, has been plagued over the past few years by rumors of illegal logging and criminal plunder by state officials. RG

Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian met with a delegation of French deputies led by Jean-Louis Debre, the president of the French National Assembly, on 15 January during a visit to Paris to discuss measures to expand relations between the two parliaments, according to Yerkir and Armenpress. Deputies of the 54-member French-Armenian Parliamentary Friendship Group pledge their support for Armenian efforts to seek regional stability and the normalization of relations between all countries of the South Caucasus. Baghdasarian expressed Armenia's concern over the situation in Georgia, noting the need for stability to ensure reliable transport links and to safeguard the sizable Armenian minority in Georgia. RG

Exxon Azerbaijan Operating Company, a subsidiary of the U.S. company ExxonMobil, invested more than $1.5 billion in oil projects in Azerbaijan between 1995 and 2003, according to a corporate report on the company's investment activities in Azerbaijan released on 15 January, Interfax reported. The ExxonMobil report revealed that its ongoing exploration of the offshore Zafar-Mashal oil field is the subsidiary's priority project. ExxonMobil holds a 30 percent share in that field, with drilling of the first well having begun in November. The company also holds shares in the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli, Nakhichivan, and Lerik-Deniz fields, although only the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli fields are currently producing oil. Despite this sizable investment, there have been significant obstacles, however, as exploration at the Oguz field was halted in November when the project failed to become commercially viable and work at the Alov structure was halted in mid-2002 due to Iranian objections. The company has also been frustrated by the continuing dispute over the legal status of the Caspian Sea, which has also suspended exploration of the Lerik-Deniz offshore fields. RG

Georgian Interior Minister Georgi Baramidze said on 15 January that outdoor events marking the 25 January inauguration of President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili will be limited due to security concerns, according to Rustavi-2 television's website and the "Georgian Times." Interior Ministry officials added that they have new information suggesting some groups might be planning to disrupt the inauguration events. The announcement follows a revelation the day before by State Minister Zurab Zhvania of the discovery of a possible assassination plot targeting the president-elect (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). Inauguration ceremonies are scheduled for Kutaisi, Poti, Batumi, and Tbilisi. RG

The Central Election Commission (CEC) released the final results on 15 January of the 4 January special presidential ballot, according to Civil Georgia and the Rustavi-2 website. With more than 1.9 million of the country's 2.2 million registered voters casting ballots, the official results show President-elect Saakashvili with 96.27 percent of the vote, followed by Temur Shashiashvili with 1.85 percent, Roin Liparteliani with 0.26 percent, and Zaza Sikharulidze with 0.24 percent. Opposition Labor Party CEC member Badri Niauri refused to sign the final protocol of tally, protesting that the voter lists had been improperly compiled. RG

Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze left Tbilisi on 15 January to visit Iraq to inspect a Georgian peacekeeping detachment currently deployed in the town of Tikrit, the "Georgian Times" reported. The Georgian detachment, deployed in Iraq since August, includes mine-clearing specialists and doctors. It is to be replaced by another group of 200 Georgian soldiers, and the country is also planning to dispatch an entire 500-soldier battalion to Iraq sometime this summer. RG

In a meeting on 15 January with acting Georgian President Nino Burdjanadze, EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana announced that the EU is willing to deploy peacekeepers to Georgia to help resolve the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts, the "Georgian Times" and Civil Georgia reported. Solana, who arrived in Tbilisi the day before (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004), praised the new Georgian leadership for its plans to tackle corruption and pledged "technical and financial assistance" to assist in the 28 March elections for a new parliament. Solana also called on Russia to "honor its commitments to withdraw its military bases" in the country. RG

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov warned on 15 January of the destabilizing implications of any hasty withdrawal of Russian forces based in Georgia, AP reported. Ivanov vowed "the withdrawal of our bases from Georgia will not be done in the way it was in Germany, when our soldiers, officers, and weapons were dumped on an empty field, and it was called a withdrawal." Although Russia has pledged to pull out its roughly 7,000 troops deployed in Georgia, it demands a minimum of 11 years to compete the full withdrawal. Recent reports suggest that Russian officials might consider an accelerated pullout if Georgia finds a foreign sponsor to pay for the withdrawal and redeployment to Russia. Earlier in the week, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe suggested the United States is prepared to provide "some assistance" to Russia toward the costs of the pullout. RG

Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze arrived in Moscow on 15 January for meetings with Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin and other officials to discuss proposals to expand trade and economic relations between Adjaria and Russia, ITAR-TASS and the "Georgian Times" reported. The official Adjarian representative in Russia, Bagri Meladze, is to accompany Abashidze during his two-day visit. A state of emergency remains in effect in Adjaria since its introduction on 24 November, after Abashidze reinstated it on 7 January following a temporary suspension to facilitate the participation of Adjarian voters in Georgia's recent special presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2003). Abashidze has ruled Adjaria since 1991. He has enhanced his personal influence in national politics by leveraging the relative independence of the autonomous republic, which hosts a Russian military base and conducts direct trade with Turkey. Adjaria only recently began contributing to the central Georgian budget. RG

The special representative of the UN secretary-general in Georgia, Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, informed acting President Burdjanadze on 15 January that Abkhaz officials are "ready to hold talks with the Georgian side without any conditions," Civil Georgia reported. Tagliavini's announcement follows meetings in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, on 13 January, where Abkhaz leaders dropped any precondition to the resumption of talks with the central Georgian government. Signaling a new willingness to negotiate with the new Georgian leadership, Abkhaz officials have recently proposed the signing of a peace treaty to serve as "favorable foundation" for resuming peace talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2004). RG

The discharge of water from the Shardara Reservoir on the Kazakh-Uzbek border into the lower reaches of the Syrdarya River has been reduced somewhat, but officials in South Kazakhstan and Kyzyl-Orda Oblasts have drawn up plans to evacuate the inhabitants of population centers near the river, reported on 15 January. Managers of the Shardara power station insist that reservoir's dam will hold despite the pressure of excess water from Kyrgyzstan, which set off a regional crisis two weeks ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2004). Should the dam break, some 50,000 people in Kazakhstan's Shardara Raion would be the first to be affected, according to the chairman of the raion emergency commission, Panzarbek Oskenali. Kazakh authorities hope Uzbekistan will fulfill its part of the three-nation agreement on preventing the flood and take more water from the reservoir. At present, the volume of water entering the lower Syrdarya from Shardara is double the normal flow. BB

Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov told journalists on 15 January that the appeal of the newly formed opposition election bloc For People's Power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004) is illegal because individual parliamentarians have no right to speak in the name of the people of Kyrgyzstan, KyrgyzInfo reported on 15 January. Osmonov added that party leaders, rather than the parties themselves, formed the new bloc. He told the same press conference that the authorities have no intention of holding a referendum on extending President Askar Akaev's term in office, despite assertions to the contrary by the opposition, Interfax reported on 15 January. Osmonov also said the death penalty might be abolished in Kyrgyzstan by 2006. BB

As of the beginning of the Kyrgyz Legislative Assembly's 16 January session, listening devices had been found in the offices of seven parliamentarians, RIA-Novosti reported. The scandal erupted two days earlier when General Ismail Isakov, head of the parliamentary State Security Committee and a former security official, announced he had found a bug in his office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). Other parliamentarians made similar discoveries and, in a special session on 15 January, accused the National Security Service of planting the devices. National Security Service chief Karlyk Imankulov denied the charge, pointing out that the devices were homemade, reported. The Prosecutor-General's Office has launched an investigation. BB

The leadership of the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) issued a statement on 14 January rejecting as unjustified the sentencing of the party's deputy chairman, Shamsuddin Shamsuddinov, to 16 years in prison on charges stemming from the 1992-97 Tajik civil war, Asia Plus-Blitz reported the following day. The Military Collegium of the Tajik Supreme Court convicted Shamsuddinov was convicted on 12 January of organizing an illegal armed formation, illegally crossing the border, and polygamy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2004). The IRPT said the prosecution of its deputy chairman violates the 1997 peace accord that ended the civil war, and that the prosecution of members of the former armed opposition is evidence of unhealthy processes occurring in society. The IRPT leadership insists that Shamsuddinov had no part in military actions during the civil war. BB

An information and resource center for Tajik citizens wanting to obtain jobs abroad opened in Dushanbe on 14 January, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 15 January. The center is an initiative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which seeks to prevent many of the problems that have been encountered by Tajiks working abroad because they are unfamiliar with the immigration rules of the countries in which they seek work. The IOM center -- located near the Dushanbe railway station from which labor migrants leave for Russia, the favored destination for job seekers -- will provide free consultations, including a 24-hour telephone hotline. An estimated 800,000 Tajiks go abroad to work every year. BB

Residents of Turkmenistan holding both Turkmen and Russian passports may now buy air tickets to Russia without showing a stamp giving them permission to leave the country, "Vremya novostei" reported on 16 January. The new rule went into effect the previous day. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov decreed in April that holders of dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship had two months to decide which passport they wanted to keep. Thereafter, holding both passports was technically illegal, but the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat reported that none of the approximately 100,000 persons with dual citizenship had turned in his Russian passport. Travel restrictions on Russian citizens in Turkmenistan have caused friction between the two countries, but they could also damage Turkmen trade with the United States if a waiver of the Jackson-Vanik requirements on free emigration is revoked. The U.S. authorities are expected to review the Turkmen waiver soon. BB

As of 9 January, Uzbekistan began charging Kyrgyz trucks and buses $300 each to cross Uzbek territory, "Obshchestvennyi reiting" reported on 15 January. The charges are being imposed in accordance with a 25 December decree by the Uzbek government and are limited to Kyrgyz vehicles. Previously, Kyrgyz vehicles had to pay the Uzbek authorities only $60 per month for insurance. The insurance charges remain. Four Kyrgyz buses cross Uzbek territory each day between southern Kyrgyzstan's Batken Oblast and Bishkek. Due to the Uzbek action, the cost of a bus ticket between Batken and Bishkek has risen to 500-800 soms ($12-19) each way, an amount residents of the country's poorest oblast can hardly be expected to pay. BB

Students of the Yakub Kolas National Humanities Lyceum that was officially shut down by Belarusian authorities demonstrated in downtown Minsk on 15 January to mark the school's 14th anniversary, Belapan reported. Demonstrators unfolded placards reading, "Belarusian Lyceum turns 14! We have not been eliminated!" and "Happy birthday, Lyceum!" The lyceum was the only preparatory school in the capital that provided instruction in all subjects in Belarusian. It was closed on 25 July, but students and teachers continue to meet for classes on other premises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2003). Lyavon Barshchewski, the former institution's vice principal, told Belapan that an unspecified European Union country has pledged to recognize the Lyceum's certificates and offer its graduates opportunities for further education. JM

Stepan Havrysh, coordinator of the pro-government majority in the Verkovna Rada, told the Inter television channel on 15 January that his bloc controls the 300 votes needed to pass a constitutional-reform bill stipulating that the legislature elect the president in 2006. "The Ukrainian nation is currently expecting this reform. I am absolutely convinced of this," Havrysh said. Meanwhile, Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko told journalists the same day that the parliamentary opposition will do everything possible to prevent constitutional changes envisaging the parliamentary election of the president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). JM

The government agreed in a unanimous decision on 15 January to select former Prime Minister and current Reform Party Chairman Siim Kallas as the country's candidate for the European Commission (EC), BNS reported. The choice was not unexpected, as during a 12 January telephone conversation with Prime Minister Juhan Parts, European Commission Chairman Romano Prodi's expressed his approval of Kallas's nomination. Former Foreign Minister and Moderates Chairman Toomas Hendrik Ilves expressed dissatisfaction that opposition parties were not consulted on the matter, while Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar said Kallas's transfer to Brussels "will probably give more room of play to the opposition" because he was the main force keeping the coalition together. SG

Czech Defense Minister Miroslav Kostelka held talks with his Latvian counterpart Girts Valdis Kristovskis in Riga on 15 January, BNS reported. They discussed international security and NATO-enlargement issues, including the development of NATO-standard air-traffic-control systems in the two countries. Kostelka suggested that Latvia send a group of specialists to the Czech Republic to become familiar with its radar system and to gain experience in methods of protecting and patrolling airspace. The ministers also spoke about the possible transfer of Latvian officers and military police to reinforce a Czech unit serving in Kosova that is being downsized. Kostelka also met with armed forces commander Rear Admiral Gaidis Zeibots and parliament Defense and Internal Affairs Committee Chairman Eriks Jekabsons. SG

Parliament on 15 January approved a value-added tax (VAT) bill that will comply with EU regulations, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. The bill, which passed by a vote of 56 to nine, with 10 abstentions, will result in price increases for some goods and services as of 1 May 2004, when Lithuania is scheduled to join the union. One of the most significant increases will be seen in heating costs, with the current 9 percent VAT rising to 18 percent. A 5 percent VAT will be imposed on some imported medicines and on publications whose paid advertising accounts for less than 80 percent of total content. SG

Prime Minister Leszek Miller said on Polish Radio on 16 January that rumors of the imminent dismissal of Marek Wagner, the head of the prime minister's office, Infrastructure Minister Marek Pol, and Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner are unfounded. Miller's statement came against a backdrop of slumping popularity of the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). "Rzeczpospolita" reported on 15 January that the opposition Civic Platform tops popularity polls with 26 percent support, according to a survey conducted by the PBS polling agency earlier this month. The radical, populist Self-Defense party enjoys 18 percent support, while the SLD and its partner in government, the Labor Union, are backed by 17 percent of voters. JM

Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda told journalists in Baghdad on 15 January that the Coalition Provisional Authority appreciates the Czech position throughout the campaign in Iraq and has reiterated its encouragement of Czech businesses seeking reconstruction-related contracts, CTK reported. Svoboda was speaking after a meeting with Coalition Provisional Authority deputy head Robert Jones. Svoboda is being accompanied by businessmen representing 12 unspecified Czech companies. Svoboda's aide for bilateral relations, Ivo Silhavy, said the Czech Republic is the first country to bring such a large business delegation to Iraq, and added that Czech companies stand a good chance in bidding. On 16 January, the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar as saying the Czech Republic received pledges from the Coalition Provisional Authority that Czech businesses can expect $100 million-$200 million in Iraq contracts. Czech representatives were expected to meet with representatives of U.S. contractors Bechtel and Halliburton on 15 January, Svoboda said. The new U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, William Cabaniss, is accompanying Svoboda on his trip. MS

Leaders of parliamentary opposition parties meeting in Bratislava on 15 January failed to agree on a strategy to bring a joint no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's minority center-right government, TASR reported. The leaders of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), Smer (Direction), and the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS) disagree mainly over what to do if such a move is successful, TASR added. While former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's HZDS would be prepared to form a government and hold talks with members of the current coalition, Smer and the KSS reportedly would like a caretaker government to rule until early elections are held. "The question is who would be prime minister -- Meciar or [Smer Chairman Robert] Fico," KSS Chairman Jozef Sevc said. Fico later accused Meciar of "collaboration" with the government. MS

During a one-day visit to Budapest on 15 January, Romano Prodi participated in a ceremony to launch the first call for EU-funded proposals to raise Hungary's economic competitiveness within the EU, Hungarian media reported. The call for EU subsidies was issued by the Economy Ministry. Some 40 billion forints ($190 million) will be distributed for proposals on technological upgrades, development projects, and the establishment of consultancy services to small and medium-sized enterprises, "Nepszabadsag" wrote. Hungary thus became the first EU accession country to make EU tenders accessible. Prodi was in Budapest along with EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen and several other senior EU officials to receive state awards from President Ferenc Madl for their roles in supporting Hungary's EU membership. During his visit, Prodi held talks with Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy on Hungary's possible candidates for the European Commission, the daily said. Prodi also called on EU heads of state to reach an agreement on an EU constitution before the European Parliament elections due in June, the MTI news agency reported. MSZ

Natasa Micic, who is speaker of the outgoing Serbian parliament and acting president, announced in Belgrade on 16 January that the recently elected legislature will hold its first session on 27 January, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. It is not clear whether a new government will be formed by that date (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 15 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). Former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) wants to form a minority government with three other parties, but would also need the legislative support of the Democratic Party to govern. The Democrats are torn by internal divisions that they hope to resolve at a meeting on 18 January. Several Democratic leaders are bitter enemies of Kostunica and unwilling to support any cabinet led by him. Tomislav Nikolic, who heads the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), said that Kostunica missed an important opportunity by not forming a coalition with the SRS, which won the most votes in the 28 December elections. PM

The Vienna-based NGO South East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO) said in a statement on 15 January that a Subotica-based magazine for Serbia's Croatian minority, "Hrvatske rijeci," recently received several threatening telephone calls, including death threats. The statement described the calls as anti-Croatian in tone and part of an unspecified campaign directed at the Croatian minority in Vojvodina that began after the 28 December elections. SEEMO called on the appropriate authorities to investigate the matter, regretting that no arrests have yet been made. Later on 15 January, Vojvodina provincial administration head Djordje Djukic condemned the intimidation of members of ethnic minorities, including RFE/RL's Novi Sad correspondent Marini Fratucan, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Vojvodina Croatian leader Petar Kuntic called on local Croats not to let themselves be provoked by the threats. PM

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Sarajevo on 15 January that the Atlantic alliance has "no firm evidence that international terrorists are operating, training, or recruiting in [Bosnia], but if we have the information, when we have the information -- if we have the information -- we and the [Bosnian] security agencies have a responsibility to act on it, of course, as part of a global campaign against terrorism," RFE/RL reported. Referring to NATO's recent unsuccessful hunt for indicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, de Hoop Scheffer said that "he can run but he cannot hide forever. And do realize and let me stress again that you can link the hunt for Mr. Karadzic and others to the downsizing of SFOR, but you shouldn't do that, because [catching Karadzic is] the first responsibility of the authorities in this country" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12, 13, and 14 January 2004). De Hoop Scheffer arrived in Kosova later the same day. PM

Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis told a visiting high-level delegation from Bosnia on 15 January that Greece should not have supported former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic during his wars of the 1990s, the "Financial Times" reported. She stressed that her country bears "a significant moral responsibility for actions and omissions that contributed to Bosnia's suffering." She called on Greece to take "a share of the blame for what happened before and during the conflict." The London daily commented that Bakoyannis has become "the first senior Greek politician to admit that Greece should not have supported...Milosevic." She was a cabinet minister in a previous government for the conservative New Democracy party and is the daughter of former Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, who was a friend of Milosevic. In 2002, Greek journalist Takis Michas documented the extent of Greek support for Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs in a book titled "Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic's Serbia." PM

On 16 January, an unspecified number of miners remained below ground near Zenica for the third consecutive day to demand back pay, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In Kladanj, 100 workers from a local company blocked the Sarajevo-Tuzla road for several hours on 15 and 16 January to demand better management and pay conditions as well as clarification of their company's legal status. PM

On 15 January, the Macedonian Army called on about 12,500 young men who so far have evaded military service to show up at the local offices of the Defense Ministry by 1 February or face prison terms, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. In July, the government amnestied draftees between 27 and 30 years of age who had not obeyed call-up orders, requiring them to show up for military service within six months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 June 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 January 2003). In previous years, many who refused to serve were ethnic Albanians who regarded the army as an ethnic Macedonian nationalist institution. UB

Croatian Ambassador to Slovenia Celestin Sardelic sent an "irrevocable" letter of resignation to President Stipe Mesic on 15 January, claiming that his superiors did not defend him against recent media criticism of his performance, Hina reported. Sardelic added that he has been "shut out from normal communication with the Foreign Ministry" and was not invited to a meeting of Croatian Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul and his Slovenian counterpart Dimitrij Rupel, scheduled for Zagreb on 16 January. Zuzul recently announced that he plans to restructure the ministry and carry out extensive personnel changes but denied that this is a political purge. After the former center-left government took office in 2000, it also carried out extensive personnel changes. Zuzul himself was ambassador to the United States under the late President Franjo Tudjman. PM

Ignoring protests from Israel and by the Jewish community in Romania, ultranationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor on 15 January unveiled in Brasov a bust representing slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Mediafax and AP reported. The occasion was used by Tudor to deliver an hour-long speech, interrupted by ovations from some 500 supporters who were transported to Brasov from different Romanian towns, according to Mediafax. They carried the Romanian flag and chanted nationalist songs. Israeli Deputy Ambassador Sandra Simovici was quoted by AP as saying that Tudor and his party are taking advantage of the memory of the slain prime minister "for electoral purposes, in a very cynical way." Simovici said the PRM holds "anti-Semitic,... xenophobic, and antidemocratic views" that are in stark contrast to the "spiritual heritage of democracy and liberalism" promoted by Rabin. In a statement issued in the evening of 15 January, Marco Maximillian Katz, director of the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in Romania, said the "shameless and...grotesque event" would not have taken place without the tacit approval and encouragement of Romanian authorities, who did nothing to stop it. MS

The Hungarian Civic Union (UCM) on 15 January proposed that primaries be held between its representatives and those of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) ahead of the local elections in Covasna County, Mediafax reported. UCM Deputy Chairman Attila Tulit said his formation intends to run candidates of its own in Covasna County settlements in which ethnic Hungarians make up more than 50 percent of the population. Tulit said that in such localities splitting the Hungarian vote poses no danger and that "it is the right of [ethnic] Hungarians not only to vote, but also to choose." Covasna County UDMR Chairman Albert Almos subsequently warned that anyone running against a UDMR candidate will be expelled from the UDMR. Most UCM members, including Tulit, are also members of the UDMR. Meanwhile, the National Council of Transylvanian Hungarians (CNMT) on 15 January said it supports the Szekler National Council's (CNS) stance that granting autonomy to Romania's Hungarian minority should be a precondition for Romania's accession to the EU, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2004). MS

Popular Action spokesman Mugur Ciuvica told journalists on 14 January that more than 200 members of his party have been summoned for police questioning regarding suspicions that requests for information sent to the Justice Ministry contained forged signatures, according to a Popular Action press release. The requests were sent to the ministry after Popular Action claimed that an external credit of 18 million euros ($23 million) for the reconstruction of Bucharest's Palace of Justice was misspent and channeled to Romanian companies that inflated reconstruction costs. The requests were based on Romanian legislation that allows access to information of public interest. Ciuvica demanded that Prime Minister Nastase dismiss Interior Minister Ioan Rus and police chief Dumitru Sorescu. Police responded that the investigations were launched at the request of the Justice Ministry because it suspected the signatures on the requests were forged, Mediafax reported. Former President Emil Constantinescu, chairman of Popular Action, on 15 January wrote to Ion Iliescu, who is his predecessor and successor as president, asking him to intervene and stop the "abuse" directed against Popular Action members, Mediafax reported. MS

The Teleradio Moldova Administrative Council has decided to stop the broadcasts of the "Good Morning" show as of 19 January, Flux reported on 15 January. The council said the decision stems from professional concerns and that "it is necessarily to elaborate a new conception of the program, to ensure its commercial viability." The Teleradio Moldova Trade Union, the Anti-Censorship Committee formed last year by Teleradio Moldova employees, and the Federation of Radio and Television Workers decided in response to coordinate their actions and to oppose the rumored intent of the management to privatize Teleradio Moldova. A spokesman for the Administrative Council said the "Good Morning" show was mainly discontinued because of its poor quality. Meanwhile, Ion Mihailo, chairman of the Audiovisual Coordination Council, said on 15 January that claims about censorship being exercised on national radio and television are "exaggerated," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Mihailo said there are just "individual cases" in which programs have been taken off the air because of a "lack of professionalism" on the part of journalists. MS

The opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) on 15 January asked the Constitutional Court to rule whether the law on assemblies approved last year by parliament is in line with constitutional provisions, Infotag reported. PPCD Chairman Iurie Rosca told journalists that the PPCD believes the law, which prohibits public meetings unless previously approved by local governments, is unconstitutional. Rosca claimed that international norms require that organizers of protest actions inform local government authorities of their intention, but do not require that permission be granted for such action. He also said the stipulation in the law requiring that requests for assemblies be submitted 15 days prior to the event is unconstitutional, adding that a one-day notification would be sufficient. MS

Former Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis, who is chairman of the Braghis Alliance and co-chairman of the Our Moldova alliance, on 15 January rejected renewed calls by PPCD Chairman Rosca for opposition parties to unite and run jointly in the 2005 elections against the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists, ITAR-TASS reported. Braghis said a joint electoral bloc with the PPCD would be impossible to set up, "and not only out of strategic considerations." MS

Conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) Chairwoman Nadezhda Mihailova said on 15 January that an extraordinary party congress will be held on 21 February, thus yielding to the growing pressure from opponents within her party, reported. A group of party members headed by former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov recently called for Mihailova's resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 January 2004). On 15 January, 29 legislators accused Mihailova of falsifying the protocols of the last party congress, reported. According to the lawmakers, the election of the National Council members was not in line with the party's charter. UB

During a 15 January session of the parliamentary Committee on Foreign Policy, Defense, and Security to assess the 27 December suicide attacks on the Bulgarian military base in Karbala, Iraq, Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev demanded that the military-intelligence service be placed back under the authority of the General Staff, reported. According to Kolev, this would improve the army's intelligence-gathering abilities. Kolev said the army currently cannot make full use of the intelligence provided by this service as it is subject to the Defense Ministry. Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov said it is necessary for the service to remain subject of his ministry, as this will ensure civilian control. UB

Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk plans to run in Ukraine's presidential election in October, "Ukrayinska pravda" reported on 6 January, citing fellow opposition newspaper "Postup," which claimed it was leaked this information by senior Defense Ministry officers.

As a presidential candidate, Marchuk could serve to ally outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's and oligarchs' fears regarding their fate in the post-Kuchma era. Marchuk, who is seen by Western governments and international organizations as pro-Western and pro-NATO, would also have a better image than leading pro-Kuchma politicians, such as Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who hails from the pro-Russian Donbas and is tied to Ukraine's wealthiest oligarch, Renat Akhmetov.

Marchuk's career has spanned Ukraine's entire post-Soviet history. In 1991-94 he was chairman of the Security Service (SBU), a position he inherited because of his long background in Soviet Ukraine's KGB. Marchuk was prime minister in 1995-96 but was sacked after falling afoul of President Leonid Kuchma.

In the 1998 parliamentary elections, Marchuk was among the first five candidates on the Social Democratic Party-united's (SDPU-o) list, alongside former President Leonid Kravchuk and party leader Viktor Medvedchuk. It was not until the following year's presidential election that the SDPU-o aligned with Kuchma.

During the 1999 presidential elections, Marchuk played a spoiler role similar to that played by the late General Aleksandr Lebed in the 1996 Russian presidential ballot. Marchuk's rhetoric, political niche, and allies were similar to those later espoused by populist nationalist Yuliya Tymoshenko, first in the National Salvation Front and then in the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc.

Marchuk was co-opted in the second round of the 1999 elections and named secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (NRBO), a position he held until 2003. In this position he was not trusted by Kuchma, and because of this Kuchma did not permit the NRBO to play the same kind of significant role in Ukrainian politics and security affairs that it had under Kuchma's trusted ally, Volodymyr Horbulin, from 1995-99.

The reasons for Kuchma's distrust were twofold. First, Marchuk's anti-Kuchma rhetoric in the 1999 elections was as radical as that emanating from Ukraine's most radical oppositionist, Tymoshenko. Second, a conflict emerged between Marchuk and the clan of Leonid Derkach, who headed the SBU in 1997-2001. Dekach's son Andrei is a leading businessman in the Dnipropetrovsk-based Labor Ukraine clan. As secretary of the NRBO, Marchuk accused the Derkachs of involvement in the illegal-arms trade.

Marchuk represented an "opposition" wing within the SBU to the officers grouped around Derkach until Derkach was forced to resign during the height of the Kuchmagate scandal in February 2001. It is this role that has led some Western observers and some members of the Ukrainian ruling elite to suspect that Marchuk either knew of but did nothing, or directed through intermediaries, the bugging of Kuchma's office in 1999-2000 by presidential security officer Mykola Melnychenko.

Like his predecessor at the NRBO, Marchuk has always been a staunch advocate of Ukraine's membership of NATO. As deputy prime minister in charge of national security in 1994-95, he earned a reputation in Moscow of being a tough operator vis-a-vis Crimean separatists and with Russia in negotiations over the Black Sea Fleet. The NRBO's decision in May 2002 to announce publicly Ukraine's goal of NATO membership was Marchuk's initiative.

There are a handful of scenarios that could explain why Marchuk would seek the presidency this year. First, his candidacy could be a sign of desperation by the authorities because they have failed to find a neutral candidate who can stand above Ukraine's three main clans and is popular enough to win the elections. Kuchma's distrust of Marchuk might be less significant now than the latter's potential usefulness in Ukraine's transition to the post-Kuchma era. It is in the interests of presidential administration head Medvedchuk to convince President Kuchma of Marchuk's newfound usefulness.

The pro-presidential parliamentary majority will be focusing its efforts on adopting constitutional changes before the elections. Marchuk has privately stated that an unspecified "radical step" will be taken in March. Marchuk could either be the authorities' sole neutral candidate, or he could run alongside a second candidate, Prime Minister Yanukovych. The SDPU-o would not view as a positive step the election as president of either Yanukovych or popular reformer Viktor Yushchenko.

Second, constitutional changes might be adopted that provide for presidential elections this year, but for parliament to elect future presidents after a new legislature is elected in 2006. These are the constitutional changes favored by the Communists, whose 59 votes are needed by the pro-presidential majority to effect the changes.

Any president elected this year would therefore automatically become a transitional president whose term in office would only last from November 2004-March 2006. Marchuk could be positioning himself as a potential interim president who would take Ukraine into the post-Kuchma era until a new president is elected by parliament. This role would seek to assuage fears by Kuchma and his oligarchic allies (particularly Medvedchuk) of their possible fate if Yushchenko were to win the election without constitutional changes, in which case he would inherit Kuchma's extensive range of powers.

Third, given that Marchuk would have little possibility of winning the election, he could play the role of a "spoiler" candidate and take votes from others. In the 1999 elections Marchuk took votes from Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz that deprived the latter of the chance to enter the second round, where Kuchma -- had he faced Moroz rather than Communist leader Petro Symonenko -- might have lost.

Marchuk's pro-NATO orientation would be beneficial to the authorities insofar as the West would perceive him as less of a stark alternative to Yushchenko. In addition, as defense minister and through his links to the SBU, Marchuk would attract the votes of the 1 million voters in the various security forces, as well as again take votes from the Socialists and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. And in a second round, Marchuk would be in a position to transfer his support to another candidate from the authorities, just as he did in the 1999 elections.

Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto's Department of Political Science.

In his final briefing to the Security Council as UN special representative to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi on 15 January praised that country's promulgation of a new constitution but warned that "the new constitutional order will only have meaning for the average Afghan if security improves and the rule of law is strengthened," "UN Wire" reported the same day. Brahimi called for the development of a government that would represent all Afghans, and he focused on the need for disarmament, reconstruction, and the overhaul of national institutions. On security, Brahimi said, "The threat factional forces pose to the peace process has been increasingly compounded by the terrorist tactics of extremists aimed at causing the peace process to fail altogether." These obstacles to security, he added, are impeding the electoral process, beginning with the registration of voters. Brahimi tendered his resignation as special representative to Afghanistan on 4 January, the same day that the Constitutional Loya Jirga approved the country's new constitution. KM

Afghan authorities have registered 386,650 individuals since March 2003 in an effort to implement the electoral process for presidential elections slated for June, Radio Afghanistan reported on 15 January. Some 83,500 of those registered are women, the report added. The government office responsible for organizing the election process has been tasked with raising public awareness about the electoral process, according to Radio Afghanistan. KM

After pledges on 12 January by Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali to defeat terrorism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2004), Afghan authorities released 49 Pakistani prisoners from Afghan jails on 15 January, AP reported the same day. Karzai ordered the release in a bid to improve relations with Pakistan and enlist Islamabad's help in fighting insurgents and terrorists believed to be hiding in the border area between the two countries. The prisoners, jailed for fighting with the Taliban against Afghan and coalition forces, were handed over to Pakistani authorities in Kabul. In return, Pakistan pledged to release Afghan prisoners from its jails, according to AP. Pakistan says at least 500 of its nationals are being held in prisons throughout Afghanistan, according to the "Hindustan Times" of 15 January. KM

Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali met with the governor, district governors, administration officials, and other civilian representatives of Paktika Province on 15 January, according to Kabul Bakhtar News Agency. Jalali reportedly explained the duties and responsibilities of provincial authorities and security officials, and he encouraged them to enlist popular support throughout the troubled province by "identifying those who disrupt security and public order." In turn, those present at the meeting discussed their administrative and security problems with the minister and sought help from the central government in alleviating them. Jalali ordered that a delegation from the central government in Kabul be sent to Paktika to assess further the serious problems facing the province, according to Bakhtar. Neo-Taliban insurgents have been active in fighting Afghan and coalition forces in the border province. KM

Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani said during the 16 January Friday Prayers that the Guardians Council will yield to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's instructions to reinstate the candidacy of incumbent parliamentarians, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). In a statement presented on 15 January, parliamentarians participating in a sit-in at the legislature noted that Khamenei's instructions to the Guardians Council were "the first positive signs" in the crisis that was triggered by the vetting body's rejection of some 45 percent of prospective candidates for the February parliamentary election. Ali Talai, an official from the Tehran Governorate-General's Political-Security Affairs Directorate, told ILNA on 15 January that it is illegal for any group to gather in front of the legislature, and added that the Interior Ministry has not issued a permit for such an action. If the Student Basij or any seminary students gather there they will be dealt with, Talai said. The protesting parliamentarians' 15 January statement thanked reformist political activists, theologians, members of the journalists' guild, and others for attending the sit-in the previous day. BS

On 16 January, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrived in Bam, the southeastern city that was devastated by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake on 26 December, to inspect relief operations, IRNA reported. BS

Japanese Deputy Trade Minister Seiji Murata told a 15 January news conference that talks on developing Iran's Azadegan oil field have stalled, "The Khaleej Times" reported the next day. "The future economic value of the project is a very important point, and I don't think things will go that easily," he said. Murata suggested a third party might have to assess the project's value. A Japanese newspaper, "Asahi Shimbun," on the other hand, cited anonymous "government sources" as saying Japan and Iran are close to a deal on Azadegan. These sources added that Japan proposed lending Iran more than $1 billion through the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. "Sankei Shimbun," another Japanese newspaper, reported on 11 January that, according to an anonymous "Japanese high-ranking government official," there are prospects for concluding the deal in the near future. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi had visited Tehran in early January. The Japanese consortium that had exclusive rights to the project backed off from a 30 June deadline due to concerns about Iranian nuclear activities and the resulting pressure from Washington (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 July 2003). More recently the consortium itself has failed to stay united (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 December 2003). BS

The Iranian ambassador in Jakarta, Shaban Shahidi-Moaddab, met with Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Yusgiantoro Purnomo on 15 January and subsequently announced Iran will soon build an oil refinery in the Tuban district of East Java Province, "The Jakarta Post" reported on 16 January. Shahidi-Moaddab said the project would cost $1 billion and will be done in cooperation with Indonesia's PT Pertamina, the state oil and gas company. The 150,000 barrels of oil a day that the refinery is expected to produce will fulfill Indonesia's domestic needs, the Iranian official said. BS

The Iraqi Governing Council's Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who is chairman of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), arrived in Tehran on 15 January and met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, IRNA reported. Khatami reportedly told his guest that the most important thing is to make preparations for Iraqis' active role in creating their desired government; al-Hakim said he hopes for free elections and self-determination. BS

Muhammad Baqir al-Mahri, secretary-general of the Shi'ite Ulama Grouping and Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's representative in Kuwait, told Abu Dhabi Television on 15 January that al-Sistani will issue a fatwa prohibiting Iraqis from cooperating with any government or transitional council that is appointed by the United States rather than being directly elected. Al-Mahri contended that the fatwa would also discredit Iraqi Governing Council members. "The religious authority Grand Ayatollah Sayyid al-Sistani will issue a fatwa stating that any U.S.-appointed council will be deprived of legitimacy. This means that this council will be deprived of legitimacy, and, as a result of that, the Iraqi people will not obey this council because it will not be a real council," he said. KR

Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Husayni al-Ha'iri has voiced support for Ayatollah al-Sistani in his demand for direct national elections, Baghdad's "Al-Dustur" reported on 13 January. Al-Ha'iri is one of four grand ayatollahs in Iraq, including al-Sistani. The opinions of the ayatollahs hold significant weight with Iraqi Shi'ites. Meanwhile, hundreds of Iraqi tribal leaders issued a joint statement following last week's First Islamic Tribal Conference saying they have taken a unified position in support of al-Sistani's stand on elections, Baghdad's "Al-Da'wah" reported on 14 January. KR

Iraqi Governing Council member and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Jalal Talabani told KurdSat Television on 15 January that he opposed a narrowly passed decision by the Iraqi Governing Council to replace civil law with sharia law in Iraq's family courts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). "I reject the decision taken by some of the members of the [council] and consider it as unfair because it has not been approved by three quarters of its members, in other words, by consensus. The decision suppresses the rights of women," Talabani said. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on 15 January that the decision was made by an 11-10 vote. Four Governing Council members were not present for the vote. KR

An adviser to the Iraqi Justice Ministry told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 15 January that the ministry was never consulted on the decision to replace civil law with sharia law, nor was it aware that the decision was going to be taken. Zakia Ismail Haqqi said no details have been released on the new provisions, which calls for all matters of marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance to be governed by Islamic sharia law, rather than civil law, which had been in force since 1959. It is still unclear who drafted the document. Meanwhile, Kurdish activist Runak Khan told RFI that the decision reverses recent gains for women in northern Iraq, which was under coalition protection for 12 years following the 1991 Gulf War. The Kurdish parliament has taken a number of steps to improve the situation of women in recent years, including the passage of a law last year that criminalizes "honor killings." KR

Thirty members of the Japanese Self-Defense Force are departing for Iraq today as part of the first dispatch of Japanese troops to a combat zone since World War II, Kyodo World Service reported on 16 January. The team will first travel to Kuwait, and is expected to be in Samawah by late January. It will prepare for the full deployment of 550 Japanese ground troops that will be stationed in the southern Iraqi city, providing reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. "I want them to closely examine the situation and prepare for accepting the contingents to follow," Kyodo quoted Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda as saying. KR

Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda told journalists in Baghdad on 15 January that the Coalition Provisional Authority appreciates the Czech position throughout the campaign in Iraq and has reiterated its encouragement of Czech businesses seeking reconstruction-related contracts, CTK reported. Svoboda was speaking after a meeting with Coalition Provisional Authority deputy head Robert Jones. Svoboda is being accompanied by businessmen representing 12 unspecified Czech companies. Svoboda's aide for bilateral relations, Ivo Silhavy, said the Czech Republic is the first country to bring such a large business delegation to Iraq, and added that Czech companies stand a good chance in bidding. On 16 January, the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar as saying the Czech Republic received pledges from the Coalition Provisional Authority that Czech businesses can expect $100 million-$200 million in Iraq contracts. Czech representatives were expected to meet with representatives of U.S. contractors Bechtel and Halliburton on 15 January, Svoboda said. The new U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, William Cabaniss, is accompanying Svoboda on his trip. MS