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Newsline - February 9, 2004

Authorities declared 9 February a day of mourning in Russia for the victims of the 6 February explosion in a Moscow metro car that the authorities say was a terrorist attack, Russian and Western media reported. The official death toll stands at 39, and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov said on 7 February after visiting some of the more than 140 people wounded in the blast that there is "no reason to believe" the death toll will rise significantly, Interfax reported. However, "Vremya novostei" on 9 February quoted rescue workers as saying that an accurate body count is difficult, and the number of deaths might have been more than 50 and perhaps even closer to 100. "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 9 February that while the Federal Security Service (FSB) investigators believe the blast was caused by a suicide bomber, they have not ruled out that a case with explosives and a timer was left in the car or that a passenger was transporting explosives that went off accidentally. JB

Cities in the Urals Federal District have introduced tighter security measures following the 6 February subway bombing in Moscow, reported on 6 February. In Zarechnii, where the Beloyarskii nuclear-power station is located, cars will be subjected to thorough checks by police and FSB officers. They will also be paying special attention to "foreigners and people from the Caucasus," according to the website. In Stavropol Krai, all markets were closed on 8 February, Radio Rossii reported. According to the station, six terrorist attacks in krai markets have taken place in the last four years. JAC

ITAR-TASS on 6 February reported that law enforcement agencies are searching for a man aged 30-35 who appeared to be from the Caucasus, and who was reportedly accompanied shortly before the blast by two young women, aged 20-25. Before the blast, the man allegedly approached a worker at the Avtozavodskaya metro station, nearest the explosion, and said, "You'll get a holiday." Deputy Moscow Prosecutor Vladimir Yudin said Chechen militants were "by all appearances" responsible for blast, "The Moscow Times" reported on 9 February. President Vladimir Putin said on 6 February that he knows "for certain" that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and "his people" are linked to the blast. Maskhadov's representative, Akhmed Zakaev, denied responsibility and condemned terrorism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2004). Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov, and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii each suggested the blast was timed to disrupt the 14 March presidential election, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 9 February. JB

Pro-Moscow Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev condemned on 7 February Russian media allegations of the involvement of persons from the Caucasus in the Moscow metro bombing the previous day, ITAR-TASS reported. Dudaev said indiscriminate accusations of Chechen involvement in the bombing contribute to the inaccurate "assumption that Chechens are to blame for all of Russia's problems." Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov likewise criticized what he termed "incorrect" statements in the wake of the blast and said such statements risk "fuelling interethnic hostility," Caucasus Press reported. Kadyrov expressed his condolences to the relatives of those killed in the bombing. LF

Motherland co-leader Dmitrii Rogozin called for a state of emergency, saying the metro blast was "an attempt to undermine the power of the state" on the eve of the election and blaming the "enemy" within Russia -- "an ethnic criminal community that evidently supports the terrorists coming to Moscow, owns property in Moscow, and imposes its will on the authorities," Interfax reported 6 February. LDPR leader Zhirinovskii said he does not support the introduction of a state of emergency, but called on the authorities to intensify document checks and "teach the population to report all suspicious persons to the police," Interfax reported on 7 February. Zhirinovskii also said the leadership of Moscow's police and FSB branch should be replaced and called for "radical changes" at the Interior Ministry, naming himself as a worthy candidate to become interior minister. Zhirinovskii earlier predicted there would be further blasts before the presidential election, and called for all people "who look suspicious" to be sent away from Moscow, Russia media reported on 6 February. JB

On the liberal side of the political spectrum, Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) Political Council member and presidential candidate Irina Khakamada noted that the metro blast took place at the start of the presidential campaign and said it was directed against President Putin, Russian media reported. Khakamada said the blast also showed that the Kremlin's efforts to resolve the situation in Chechnya are failing and that the country's security services are ineffective. Likewise, fellow SPS member Boris Nemtsov said on 7 February that terrorist attacks will continue until a "political process" to end the Chechen conflict is started, Interfax reported. Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin said it is necessary "to eliminate the total irresponsibility of the special services, who neither consider it necessary to resign nor are fired by the president." Commentator Yelena Kostochkina wrote in "Vremya novostei" on 9 February that fighting terrorism is nearly impossible in Russia's "highly corrupt society," given that terrorists know that unregistered "persons of Caucasus nationality" can bribe their way out of a document check for 50-100 rubles ($1.50-$3). JB

The wife of presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin on 8 February filed a missing person report with the Moscow police, saying that her husband has been missing since the evening of 5 February, Ekho Moskvy reported. Interfax reported on 9 February that officials have formally opened a murder investigation in connection with the case. Late in the day on 9 February, RIA-Novosti and other media cited unconfirmed reports from law enforcement officials indicating that Rybkin had been found alive, but Rybkin's campaign staff was quote as saying they had not received any such information. On 4 February, Rybkin gave an interview to RFE/RL's Moscow bureau, in which he claimed Russia's special services were exerting pressure on him to prevent him from campaigning for president. Rybkin alleged that special-service agents were following him even when he traveled abroad. Meanwhile, officers from the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB) are now engaged in the search for Rybkin, reported on 8 February. Rybkin is a former speaker of the State Duma and a former Security Council secretary who is running with the support of one faction of the Liberal Russia party. His presidential campaign is allegedly being financed by the London-based former oligarch Boris Berezovskii, although Rybkin in previous interviews has denied that Berezovskii is providing any funds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2004). JAC

On 2 February, Rybkin declared that President Putin is "one of Russia's biggest oligarchs" and "has no right to power in Russia," RFE/RL reported. According to Rybkin, some people who are reportedly close friends of Putin -- including Gennadii Timchenko and Mikhail and Yurii Kovalchuk -- have gained control over many financial flows in Russia through acquisition of Russian television channels. Rybkin said that Eurofinance owns 49 percent of ORT and Gazprom-Media. "[Eurofinance President Vladimir] Stolyarenko is formally the head of Eurofinance, but everything belongs to the Kovalchuk brothers," he said. "Many people know about this, but are afraid to talk about it in the current times." Rybkin told the bureau that Putin, Timchenko and the Kovalchuk brothers are close friends and meet constantly. One of the brothers reportedly is even an official adviser to the president. Rybkin also charged the Timchenko-Kovalchuk group has swallowed up money coming from embattled oil giant Yukos and will take control over Surgutneftegaz. JAC

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said on 7 February that Russia expects to write off 65 percent of the $8 billion debt that Iraq owes Moscow, excluding interest, Russian and Western media reported. "Above all, the size of the write-off and restructuring will be determined on the basis of an assessment of [Iraq's] economic and financial condition [and] its future creditworthiness" now being carried out by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Kudrin told a meeting of finance ministers and central bankers of the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries in Boca Raton, Florida. Kudrin added that a promise made by the Iraqi Governing Council to respect oil contracts made under the previous regime "is a good basis for us being flexible on write-off issues," Interfax reported on 8 February. President Putin told a visiting Iraqi Governing Council delegation in December that Russia was ready to write off 65 percent of Iraq's debt, while the delegation's head, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, declared Iraq "open for all Russian companies to carry out their activities" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2003). JB

As of 8 February, the TsIK had registered seven candidates in the 14 March presidential election, including the missing Rybkin, reported. President Putin, Communist Party State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov, LDPR candidate Oleg Malyshkin were registered before 5 February. On 6 February, the TsIK registered Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, after a random check of 600,000 of the 2.499 million signatures he submitted found that 5.18 percent were invalid. On 8 February, the TsIK registered SPS Political Council member Khakamada, Motherland faction leader Sergei Glazev, and Rybkin. The commission found only 5 percent of a sample of Khakamada's signatures invalid, while around 14 percent of Glazev's were invalidated, according to RosBalt. According to, the TsIK initially announced that more than 26 percent of the signatures supporting Rybkin's nomination were invalid. According to the election law, a candidate can be refused registration if more than 25 percent of his or her signatures are invalidated. However, the TsIK later lowered the figure for Rybkin to 21.17 percent and registered him. JAC

The Supreme Court on 6 February upheld a decision by the TsIK to refuse to register former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko as a candidate in the presidential election, Russian media reported. The commission ruled that Gerashchenko, who was nominated by the Russian Regions party -- which is a constituent part of the Motherland bloc -- had to gather 2 million signatures to support his candidacy, despite the fact that the Motherland bloc surpassed the 5 percent barrier to Duma entry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2004). After the court's decision, Gerashchenko, who is now a State Duma deputy, told reporters that he doesn't know whether he would appeal the court's verdict to the Supreme Court's Appeals Collegium, Interfax reported. He said the decision will depend on how the registration process for Motherland bloc head Glazev unfolds. JAC

The Koryak Autonomous Okrug Election Commission registered the okrug's chief prosecutor, Boris Chuev, on 7 February for the region's 14 March gubernatorial election, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day. Chuev and Yurii Khnaev, the mayor of the okrug's capital city, Palana, are considered the chief competitors to incumbent Governor Vladimir Loginov, who is seeking a second term. Initially, the commission ruled that Chuev violated election law by using administrative resources to gather signatures in support of his candidacy. More than 100 of the 500 signatures submitted belonged to workers at the prosecutor's office or in okrug law enforcement agencies, the daily reported. The commission, however, agreed to register Chuev after he paid an election deposit of 150,000 rubles ($5,000). Meanwhile, Chuev's office has launched criminal investigations against both Loginov and Khnaev. The okrug administration stands accused of negligence, and the mayor of abuse of office. JAC

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov announced on 6 February that he plans cuts in the Duma's central apparatus, as well as in the staffs of its profile committees, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 7 February. According to Gryzlov, more than 80 people will lose their positions. The current chief of the Duma's apparatus, Unified Russia party member Aleksandr Lotarev, will keep his post, the daily reported. Lotarev replaced Communist Party member Nikolai Troshkin in 2002. Last year, Lotarev proposed reducing the staffs assigned to committees and increasing that of the parliament's central apparatus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2003). JAC

Visiting Yerevan on 4-6 February, a Council of Europe delegation headed by Ambassador Pietro Ercole Ago met with President Robert Kocharian, parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian to discuss the implementation of the human rights commitments Armenia made on being accepted to membership of the council in 2001, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. At a 6 February press conference, Ago gave an overall positive assessment of Armenia's progress, pointing to the abolition of the death penalty and to the passage of new legislation on the media, on creating the post of human rights ombudsman, and providing for alternative military service. At the same time, he expressed "disappointment" that Armenia's leading independent television station A1+ has not been able to resume broadcasting since losing its frequency in April 2002. Ago's assessment contrasted with a resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe at its winter session last month, which denounced "massive fraud" during last year's presidential and parliamentary elections and concluded that no progress in implementing democratic reforms had been registered over the previous year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2004). LF

Serzh Sarkisian said on 6 February that the U.S. administration should preserve parity in providing military aid to Armenia and Azerbaijan, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The U.S. draft budget for fiscal year 2005 provides for $8 million in military aid to Azerbaijan, compared with $2 million for Armenia. Speaking in Moscow on 4 February, Sarkisian said there is a gentlemen's agreement between his ministry and the U.S. Defense Department that the principle of parity should be maintained, according to Armenpress, as cited by Groong. Sarkisian added that he does not think an increase in military aid to Azerbaijan will make the Azerbaijani Army four times stronger. LF

Addressing a party congress in Yerevan on 6 February, Hrant Markarian, a leading member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), reaffirmed that party's commitment to the creation of a "United Armenia" that would incorporate part of present-day Turkey, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. He also demanded that the Turkish government formally acknowledge the 1915 genocidal killings of Armenians, and that the Georgian government grant formal autonomy to the south Georgian region of Djavakhk, the population of which is overwhelmingly Armenian (see End Note below). The HHD is one of three parties represented in the government, together with the Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia and Orinats Yerkir, headed by parliament speaker Baghdasarian. Neither of those parties subscribes to the HHD territorial claims on Turkey, which are at odds with Armenian foreign policy. LF

Following talks in Moscow on 6 February, Ilham Aliyev and Vladimir Putin signed a "Moscow Declaration" that reaffirms the commitments enshrined in both the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty of July 1997 and the Baku Declaration on Principles of Security and Cooperation in the Caucasus signed during Putin's visit to Baku three years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 1997 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 January 2001). The Moscow Declaration reaffirms the two sides' shared commitment to step up cooperation in the fight against terrorism; to participate in regular meetings of the Caucasus Four group of states to discuss regional problems; and to refrain any military, economic, or financial measures directed against the other. It also reaffirms the two sides' shared commitment to a peaceful solution of the Karabakh conflict. Four further agreements were signed during Aliyev's visit: on cooperation between the two countries' respective state news agencies; on the mutual protection of confidential information; on the exemption of certain commodities, including sugar and beer, from the tariffs imposed under the free-trade agreement of September 1992; and on mutual humanitarian assistance, according to on 7 February. LF

Ambassador Peter Burkhard, who heads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) office in Baku, held a news conference on 6 February to review the office's activities over the previous 12 months, reported on 7 February. Burkhard rejected allegations that the International Election Observation Mission to the 15 October presidential election passed judgment on the outcome of that ballot, stressing that the mission's task is to evaluate only the pre-election campaign, the voting, and the vote count. Burkhard also rejected as misplaced allegations that Ambassador Peter Eicher, who headed the Election Observation Mission, was involved in an attempted coup d'etat by opposition forces following the ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2004). Burkhard stressed that Eicher met late on 15 October with defeated opposition presidential candidate Isa Qambar at the request of the Azerbaijani authorities to try to persuade Qambar to order his supporters to desist from their public protests. LF

. Deputies approved President Mikheil Saakashvili's proposed constitutional amendments in their second and third readings late on 6 February, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. Opposition deputies who had voted against the amendments during their first reading the previous day dropped their objections. Those amendments reintroduce the post of prime minister, empower the parliament to remove the government by means of two successive no-confidence votes adopted by a two-thirds majority, and transfer to the president some of the powers of the Constitutional Court. Deputies rejected, however, an amendment proposed by Minister of State Zurab Zhvania that would have stripped them of their immunity from prosecution. LF

Zakarii Kutsnashvili of the opposition Socialist parliament faction alleged on 6 February that during the previous evening's first reading of the constitutional amendments 10 deputies who should have forfeited their mandates after accepting government positions illegally voted in favor of the amendments, Georgian media reported. He argued that without those 10 votes the amendments would not have secured the two-thirds majority required to pass. LF

Tedo Djaparidze met on 6 February with Donald Rumsfeld on the sidelines of the 40th Munich International Security Conference to discuss bilateral cooperation, regional-security issues, and cooperation in the fight against international terrorism, ITAR-TASS and the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported. LF

The Central Election Commission has registered 47 political parties to contest the 28 March ballot to decide the distribution of 150 mandates allocated under the party-list system, Caucasus Press reported. The deadline for registration was 7 February. Six parties failed to submit the required 50,000 signatures in support of their applications to register. President Saakashvili's National Movement and Minister of State Zhvania's United Democrats, which had originally planned to merge and contest the ballot jointly, have registered separately (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2004). LF

About 300 people, including leaders of several political parties and a number of journalists, gathered in Almaty on 7 February for a rally in support of freedom of speech and the fight against corruption, reported. The rally was organized by a group of Kazakh journalists formed to support journalist Gennadii Benditskii, who is being prosecuted on criminal-libel charges. Rally participants called on the parliament to decriminalize libel. They also demanded an open hearing on what the country's law enforcement agencies are doing to fight corruption. Kazakh Journalists' Union head Seyitkazy Mataev commented that the high turnout of political-party leaders demonstrated that the 2004 parliamentary-election campaign has already begun. BB

Kazakhstan will definitely be compensated for the slower-than-planned start-up of commercial oil production at the Kashagan offshore oil field, Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov told an Astana news conference on 6 February, according to the Caspian News Agency ( Akhmetov was unwilling to give a figure for the amount of that compensation. Akhmetov said he has discussed the issue with the heads of all the oil companies working on Kazakhstan's Caspian shelf, and has reached an understanding with the main developer of the northern Kazakh project, a consortium headed by Italy's AGIP. Kazakh officials estimate that the Kashagan field contains at least 1.4 billion tons of high-quality oil. Akhmetov told the same news conference that Kazakhstan intends to sell a 25 percent stake in the Kurmangazy oil field to French oil major Total. BB

Speaking in Astana on 6 February, Nursultan Nazarbaev argued in favor of creating a common agrarian market for CIS states, Interfax reported. He said doing so within the framework of the proposed CIS free-trade zone would enable the countries concerned "to provide ourselves with food, energy -- everything we need." LF

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev chaired an expanded session of the government on 7 February to present changes he is making in accordance with the law on government structure that was adopted by the parliament on 6 February, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and reported. A new first deputy prime minister, Kubanychbek Djumaliev, has been named, with responsibility for transport and communications. Ularbek Mateev, formerly head of the state energy agency, was appointed deputy prime minister for social affairs. A new Economic Development, Industry, and Trade Ministry has been set up, and it is headed by former Prime Minister Amangeldy Muraliev. Akaev also appointed former Chui Oblast Governor Toichubek Kasymov to head the presidential administration. BB

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov signed a decree at a cabinet meeting on 6 February naming Amandurdy Myratgulyev head of the State Tax Service, reported on 7 February. Myratgulyev had headed the tax office in Ruhabat Raion, a "model" raion near Ashgabat that has been developed in recent years to demonstrate how raions can function administratively, economically, and socially. Niyazov expressed his displeasure with Myratgulyev's predecessor, Bairammurad Muradov, because tax revenues have failed to keep pace with the official rate of development of the national economy. BB

OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) Rolf Ekeus visited Uzbekistan on 6 February and met with Olii Majlis (parliament) Chairman Erkin Khalilov, reported. Ekeus also visited the presidential Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies for a discussion of the Uzbek government's policy on national minorities, and met with staff at the National Center for Human Rights. The Uzbek government was reluctant to accept visits from the HCNM for a number of years, arguing that interethnic relations were not a problem in the country. Since Ekeus took over the office of HCNM, relations with the Uzbek government appear to have improved. BB

Belarusian National Bank Chairman Pyotr Prakapovich said on 6 February that his country no longer needs loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Belapan reported. Prakapovich was speaking to two IMF officials, Thomas Richardson and Willy Kiekens, at the end of their two-week mission to Belarus to assess the country's macroeconomic situation. Prakapovich explained that the decision to shun IMF loans was made in light of a strengthening of the national currency, a fall in inflation, an increase in foreign reserves, and improvements in the current-account situation in 2003. The IMF stopped lending to Belarus in 1995, saying the government's economic policies were inconsistent with its recommendations. In 1992-95, Belarus received three loans from the IMF amounting to $270 million. JM

President Leonid Kuchma said at a meeting with foreign diplomats in Kyiv on 6 February that Ukraine's priority foreign-policy tasks in 2004 are seeking to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO), proceeding toward integration with the European Union, and developing cooperation with Russia and the United States, Interfax reported. Kuchma said Kyiv wants to conclude its negotiations on WTO membership this year. He also pledged that Ukraine will make efforts to bring "all spheres of social life and primarily domestic legislation" into line with European standards. JM

President Kuchma has signed a decree ordering the transformation of the State Committee for Family and Youth Affairs into the Ministry for Family, Children, and Youth Affairs, Interfax reported on 6 February, quoting the presidential press service. The decree appointed Valentyna Dovzhenko to head the new ministry. The Ukrainian cabinet is to prepare draft regulations regarding the activities and personnel of the new ministry within two months. JM

Our Ukraine Chairman Viktor Yushchenko said last week that the "Silski visti" newspaper needs "to find courage to apologize to those people whose ethnic sentiments were offended by its publications," the Our Ukraine website ( reported on 5 February. Yushchenko was presumably referring to an article on Jews in Ukraine that was published by "Silski visti" in November and prompted the recent court closure of the newspaper amid charges of anti-Semitism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2004). "There should be no discussion about this [apology]," Yushchenko said, noting that his father was a prisoner at Auschwitz in 1944 "jointly with Jews at a time when 25,000 people were [being] liquidated every day." Yushchenko claimed that, at the same time, his grandmother and mother were keeping three Jewish girls in hiding in his home in Ukraine's Sumy Oblast. Yushchenko repeated his assertion that the court, by ignoring other legal possibilities for dealing with "Silski visti" and ruling to close the newspaper, was following orders from the authorities to destroy the largest opposition publication in the country. JM

The Moderates party at its 7 February congress in Tallinn voted to change its name to the Social Democratic Party, BNS reported. The amendment to its party statutes passed by a vote of 226 to six with two abstentions. Party Chairman Ivari Padar delivered a report to the congress in which he fiercely attacked the ruling Res Publica party, declaring that it "considers itself God,... but is guided by its own narrow private interest." He said that the objective of Res Publica's proposed party-finance scheme is to create a couple of large pro-government parties and perpetuate their power. Padar also condemned the ruling coalition's social policies, which he said have benefited the wealthy by requiring the impoverished to pay for services that were once provided by the state, and through the imposition of indirect taxes. The congress also elected 18 candidates for the European Parliament elections in June, with former Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves receiving 276 votes, party board member Marianne Mikko receiving 235, and parliament deputy Katrin Saks receiving 199. SG

Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) in Riga on 6 February thanked President Vaira Vike-Freiberga for Latvia's participation in international peacekeeping operations and praised its readiness for joining NATO, BNS reported. McCain led a delegation of U.S. senators and representatives participating in a two-day international conference on the development of democracy beyond the Baltic states. McCain told the conference that Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka "is the last dictator in Europe, but his tyranny can not last forever." He said the democratic countries of Europe must help Belarus become one too. The conference was attended by members of opposition groups in Belarus. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry, noting that no official representatives of Belarus were invited to the conference, accused its organizers of not wanting "to form constructive dialogue based on mutual respect with Belarus, replacing this with yet another attempt at blatant external pressure on our country." SG

A new nongovernmental organization called For Justice and a Democratic Lithuania was established on 7 February in Vilnius, "Kauno diena" reported on 9 February. The founding congress, which was held at the Trade Union Palace with many supporters gathering outside the building, was observed by some 400 policemen and passed without incident. Parliament deputy Rolandas Pavilionis, who recently joined the Liberal Democratic Party that Rolandas Paksas founded for his presidential campaign, opened the congress by declaring that For Justice and a Democratic Lithuania was founded to strengthen justice and banish corruption. The 326 delegates at the congress unanimously approved the organization's statutes and a resolution, and elected a 28-member board that includes former dissident Antanas Terleckas and leftist parliament deputy Julius Veselka. Speaking to the congress by telephone, embattled Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas expressed thanks for its members' support and assured them that "everything will be OK." SG

Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski told PAP in Munich on 6 February that Poland is proposing to begin work aimed at establishing the level of an expanded NATO's involvement in Iraq. "I suggested that we should begin informal consultations at [an] ambassadorial level, and that later on this dialogue should be continued at the level of foreign ministers," Szmajdzinski said on the sidelines of the two-day Munich Conference on Security Policy. He added that Poland wants decisions concerning NATO's possible role in Iraq to be made at the NATO summit in Istanbul in June. Poland has some 2,500 servicemen in Iraq and leads a 9,000-strong division of troops from more than 20 countries in its stabilization sector there. JM

Some 300 Solidarity-affiliated local-government activists and representatives of church groups signed a declaration in Warsaw on 8 February to form the National Electoral Committee to field candidates for the European Parliament elections in June, PAP reported. "The rank-and-file Poland is not the Poland of the Civic Platform, of the Law and Justice, or of any other party," Former Sejm speaker Maciej Plazynski said at the inaugural meeting of the committee. "It is the Poland of the people who build their communities in a tough and honest way." A declaration adopted at the meeting says, "It would be bad if the European Parliament mandate was treated as a sinecure for mediocre, passive, but loyal members of the parties who compromised themselves in government and state jobs." JM

Interior Minister and Social Democratic Party (CSSD) Deputy Chairman Stanislav Gross said on 7 February that he would "not be opposed" to running for party chairman at a party congress next year if he is supported by CSSD's central Bohemian branch, CTK and the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported. Gross was responding to calls from within the party's regional leadership at a weekend conference. Polls have consistently indicated that Gross, 33, is the most popular politician in the Czech Republic. Prime Minister and CSSD Chairman Vladimir Spidla countered that he is ready to face any challenge at the 2005 CSSD congress. MS

Police on 6 February detained one of two men sought for allegedly assaulting the editor in chief of investigative weekly "Respekt," CTK and dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004). A judge rejected the prosecution's request to keep the suspect in custody as the investigation proceeds in order to avoid possible attempts to influence witnesses. The 25-year-old man reportedly refused to cooperate with police, who are still searching for a second suspect. Police told CTK that the detained suspect has been sentenced in the past for robbery, but that they have discovered no clear motive for the assault. Editor Tomas Nemecek reported being attacked by two men and had to spend a week in hospital. Nemecek said he believes the assault was a response to a series of articles published in "Respekt" on violent gangs in the northern Bohemian cities of Most and Litvinov. MS

All 150 participants in a nonbinding referendum held on 7 February in the southern Bohemian village of Zbor voted against the possibility of housing a nuclear-waste repository, CTK reported. Deputy Mayor Marie Kasparova said the inhabitants fear that agriculture and tourism will be destroyed if the village houses such a facility. The government has identified six possible locations for the repository, although a final decision is not required until 2025. A number of other villages have likewise rejected hosting a repository in similar referendums (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 November 2003 and 2 February 2004). MS

Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said on 6 February that Slovaks should ignore a nonbinding referendum on early elections called by President Rudolf Schuster when they go to the presidential polls on 3 April, CTK and TASR reported. Schuster called the plebiscite for the same day as presidential elections after the Confederation of Trade Unions (KOZ) announced it had collected more than half a million signatures backing the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2004). Dzurinda reiterated his claim that the nonbiding plebiscite is "unfair." "Just as it is not right to stop a soccer game at halftime, it is also not right to end [the government's] mandate early, when it is clear that positive results come in the second half. People should ignore this unfair affair," CTK quoted Dzurinda as saying. "It is natural that today we are not very popular, and that the opposition wants to use this [lack of popularity] to impose early elections." Opposition representatives criticized Dzurinda's appeal. Movement for a Democratic Slovakia parliamentary deputy Sergej Kozlik said his party will ask supporters to participate in the referendum, according to TASR. MS

A public-opinion poll carried by Slovak Radio's Audience Research in cooperation with the Slovak Academy of Sciences suggested that nearly two in three eligible Slovak voters intend to participate in the referendum on early elections, TASR and CTK reported. More than 63 percent of 2,241 respondents said they "definitely" (37.6 percent) intend to participate or are "likely" (25.7 percent) to take part. One in five respondents ruled out participation, and 13 percent said they are "unlikely" to vote in the plebiscite. For parliament to consider the nonbiding referendum's outcome, at least half of all eligible voters must cast ballots. A "yes" vote would still require three-fifths support in parliament, which most observers consider unlikely. MS

Visiting Slovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop and Mikulas Dzurinda agreed on 6 February that their only bilateral problem is that people often confuse their respective countries, dpa reported. Dpa reported that, during his successful U.S. presidential campaign in 2000, George W. Bush inadvertently greeted the then-Slovenian prime minister as the leader of Slovakia. Some 5,000 letters destined for Slovenia were delivered instead to Slovakia in 2003, the news agency reported. Rop and Dzurinda expressed confidence that such confusion will disappear once they join the European Union and gain more international attention. Rop said Slovenia expects to join the eurozone by 2007, while Slovakia intends to do so no sooner than 2008. Rop also met with President Schuster and parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky. MS

Socialist Party parliamentary group leader Ildiko Lendvai told reporters on 8 February that her party calls on opposition FIDESZ Chairman and former Prime Minister Viktor Orban to admit that he made a mistake when he encouraged the establishment of right-wing civic circles, the MTI news agency reported the same day. Lendvai alleged that the political movement represented by civic circles has gotten out of control, leading to daily "violent street programs" in Hungary. FIDESZ spokesman Mariusz Revesz countered that the Socialist Party "must be in big trouble" to continue its purported hate campaign against FIDESZ and Orban, the agency reported. MSZ

Budapest's controversial Tilos Radio will broadcast only music until the station's operating structure is transformed and its staff members attend refresher courses, the chairman of the radio's board of trustees told reporters on 6 February. Gabor Csabai told Klub Radio that the events of the past several weeks have shown that "there is a problem" at the radio. Right-wing conservative parties have asked the National Radio and Television Authority (ORTT) to investigate the radio's broadcasting policy after a program host told listeners on 24 December that he would exterminate all Christians, while in another case an employee read out an on-air message that called Orban a "fascist" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 29 January and 5 February 2004). MSZ

Dragan Marsicanin, who was recently elected speaker of the Serbian parliament, said in Belgrade on 7 February that he expects there will be a new government "within two or three weeks," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 6 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). He added that the new prime minister will probably be Vojislav Kostunica, who, like Marsicanin, belongs to the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). The speaker said the governing coalition will likely include either the Democratic Party or the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). Elsewhere, Democratic Party Vice President Zoran Zivkovic said his party will not join any government that includes the SPS because such a cabinet will not carry out reforms. PM

Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said in Belgrade on 4 February that the SPS demanded several concessions from the DSS in return for supporting Marsicanin's election as speaker, the website of Svilanovic's Citizens' Alliance of Serbia ( reported. The SPS wanted the government to pay for the defense of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic before the Hague-based war crimes tribunal and not to extradite any additional Serbian indictees to The Hague, Svilanovic added. He also stated that the SPS wanted several changes in the privatization process to enable its members to return to governing bodies of unnamed corporations and for employees of companies to receive vouchers, giving them shares in their respective firms. Svilanovic said he does not know if the DSS and its coalition allies agreed to the demands, but he believes that they did. Marsicanin previously said the SPS set no conditions for its support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3, 4, and 5 February 2004). PM

Albanian police prevented several thousand demonstrators from entering Albanian government offices in Tirana on 7 February, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The protesters were responding to a call by opposition leader Sali Berisha to help bring down the government of Prime Minister Fatos Nano, which the opposition says has not done enough to improve the standard of living. Berisha called on Nano to leave office lest he be ousted like former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. EU and U.S. officials condemned the violence. The government pledged to punish individuals who broke the law, while Berisha called for more protests. PM

Speaking on 8 February on the sidelines of the Munich Conference on Security Policy, Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva said that Macedonia has turned from a country "consuming security" into one "exporting security," MIA news agency reported. "Today, there are no military missions in Macedonia, but our country participates with its soldiers [in peacekeeping missions] in Afghanistan and Iraq," Mitreva said. She added that she expects that Macedonia will receive "positive signals" for its bid for NATO membership at the upcoming NATO summit in Istanbul (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2002. UB

On a brief visit to Zagreb after the Munich conference, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Croatian President Stipe Mesic, Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, and several other top officials on 8 February that Washington appreciates Zagreb's help in the war against terrorism and its deployment of 50 military-police officers to Afghanistan, regional and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 January 2004). Croatia also supplies some arms and ammunition to the Afghan Army. Rumsfeld added that he hopes Croatia will enact military reforms so that it can qualify for NATO membership. "The Washington Post" reported that Sanader said his government is considering sending an unspecified number of "doctors and aid workers" to Iraq. The war in Iraq is highly unpopular in Croatia. Neither Sanader nor Rumsfeld publicly mentioned a possible bilateral extradition-immunity agreement between Washington and Zagreb that would prohibit the handover of each other's citizens to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Sanader nonetheless said that he and Rumsfeld "discussed Croatia's participation in the antiterror coalition.... We want to be a part of this antiterrorist coalition, and the government will now have to discuss this issue." PM

In Zagreb on 8 February, U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said NATO -- and hence the United States -- will not leave Bosnia completely in the foreseeable future, RFE/RL reported. "NATO is not going to pull out -- period -- of Bosnia," Rumsfeld stressed, adding that "at the end of this year, if the situation is right, NATO will complete its work and the EU will take over a new role in Bosnia, which is less military and more police in its orientation." Rumsfeld also noted, "NATO [will] keep a headquarters in Bosnia for the purpose of assisting with defense reform and to assist with the handling of indicted war criminals." RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service noted on 7 February that, while the security situation in Bosnia has improved greatly in recent years, many Bosnians feel that only NATO has the authority and military muscle to ensure stability and to arrest indicted war criminals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January and 6 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 September and 19 December 2003 and 23 January 2004). PM

Opposition Democratic Party Chairman Traian Basescu said on 9 February that European Commission President Romano Prodi has lobbied the Romanian government to allow exceptions to the country's moratorium on international adoptions, which was imposed in 2001, Mediafax reported. Basescu said that European Commissioner for Human Rights Alvaro Gil-Robles, as well as numerous European politicians, Europarliamentarians, and diplomats intervened on behalf of prospective adoptive parents, as did prominent U.S. congressmen. Basescu said Prodi, Gil-Robles, and other European politicians owe Romania an explanation as to why the country is now being threatened with repercussions for abiding by their requests. Meanwhile, the Europarliament's rapporteur on Romania, Baroness Emma Nicholson, arrived in Bucharest on 7 February and held talks with Romanian officials in charge of the adoption process. She was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Adrian Nastase on 9 February, Romanian Radio reported. On 6 February, the cabinet issued an emergency ordinance banning exceptions to the moratorium. MS

In a resolution approved at the end of its 4-5 February congress, the European People's Party (EPP) said it opposes suspending EU-accession talks with Romania, the daily "Evenimentul zilei" reported on 8 February. However the party wants "a strict monitoring" of Romania's fulfillment of the political criteria for EU membership in general, and of reforms in public administration and the judiciary in particular. Baroness Nicholson supported EEP Europarliamentarian Arie Oostlander's proposal that an amendment calling for the EU to suspend the negotiations be added to the Romania country report Nicholson is drafting. Meeting in Madrid on 6 February, the Socialist group in the European Parliament likewise expressed opposition to the proposed amendment to the report, but called on Bucharest to "display more coherence and [political] will for the successful closure of negotiations" by the end of 2004. Prime Minister Nastase, who attended the meeting, met in Madrid with his Spanish counterpart Jose Maria Aznar, who ensured him of Spain's full support for Romania's EU integration, Romanian Radio reported. MS

Prime Minister Nastase said on 6 February that the contract awarded to the U.S. company Bechtel to build a highway between Brasov and Oradea stemmed from the rapidity with which the company pledged to complete the project, Romanian Radio reported. Nastase was responding to EU allegations that the process under which the contract was awarded lacked transparency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2004). He said the deal should not affect plans for a second highway linking Bucharest with Budapest, for which Hungary and Romania are seeking EU funds. The radio station cited U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest as saying he fails to understand why the deal has been questioned. He said the Romanian cabinet chose Bechtel because of its well-known efficiency and that the U.S. government backs the choice. MS

The European People's Party (EPP) approved a resolution at its 4-5 February congress calling on Russia to fulfill the obligations it assumed at the 1999 Istanbul and 2001 Porto OSCE summits to withdraw its troops from Transdniester, Flux reported on 7 February. The EPP, which is the umbrella organization of European Christian Democratic parties, said in its resolution that "only an end of military occupation can bring about the restoration of Moldova's territorial unity and put an end to separatism inspired by neo-imperialist circles in Moscow." The EPP's congress also approved a resolution expressing support for the Popular Party Christian Democratic's struggle for "liberty, democracy, and an European outlook for Moldova," and asking all EPP members to provide support in European institutions for resistance to Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin's "totalitarian regime," Flux reported. MS

Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on 5 February, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Stephen Minikes said the United States "hopes the current year will be decisive in the search for a solution to the Transdniester conflict," Flux reported on 7 February. Minikes demanded that Russia fulfill the obligations assumed at the OSCE summits concerning the withdrawal of its troops from the separatist region. He also said he is "surprised" by OSCE permanent representative to Moldova William Hill's announcement that poor weather conditions have halted the withdrawal process (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004). Minikes said more than six weeks have passed since the last train cargo carrying Russian ammunition left Transdniester, and "nobody has provided an explanation" for the interruption of the evacuation. MS

According to an opinion poll released on 4 February by the private MBMD polling agency, about 38 percent of 1,024 respondents believe that all Bulgarian political parties receive funding from criminal structures, while 8 percent say they are financed in part through drug trafficking, reported. The poll apparently allowed respondents to give more than one answer. Thirty-six percent said parties receive money from business corporations and 32 percent said parties support themselves with state subsidies. Twenty-seven percent said parties' funds come from membership dues. MBMD Director Mira Yanova said the results show that most Bulgarians believe the country's political parties are financed by unlawful means. On 5 February, parliament approved on first reading three draft laws aimed at reforming the current system of party financing by introducing clear rules for state subsidies, "Dnevnik" reported. UB

Opposition Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev said on 8 February his party will press for early elections to be held this fall, reported. By that time, Stanishev said, the party should be cleansed of "klientelisti" (people who engage in nepotism). Meanwhile, representatives of the BSP-dominated Coalition for Bulgaria and the BSP's executive office have reportedly decided to initiate a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski's government by the end of February because of its "social irresponsibility." In an allusion to a recent publication in an Iraqi daily of a list naming the BSP among individuals and entities that allegedly received oil payments from the former Iraqi regime in exchange for political support, Stanishev said his party will not allow a scandal based on dubious information to deflect the party's attention from its program. A high-level source in Iraq's Oil Ministry confirmed last week that individuals and entities did indeed have dealings with Hussein's regime, reported on 4 February, citing Reuters. However, the source said the contracts were not given as bribes in return for political support, but rather were legal contracts distributed on the basis of the UN-sanctioned oil-for-food program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2004). UB

Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov on 8 February said on the sidelines of the Munich Conference on Security Policy that Bulgaria will become a full NATO member by mid-March, reported. Svinarov expects Bulgaria to deposit its instruments of accession to the U.S. State Department by 15 March. He also announced that Bulgaria will officially celebrate its NATO membership on 1 or 2 April. UB

One of the first moves made by the interim Georgian leadership that came to power last November was to launch a campaign to win the support of the country's Azerbaijani and Armenian minorities, which number approximately 500,000 and 250,000, respectively, or some 11.4 percent and 5.7 percent of the total population of 4.37 million.

The overwhelming majority of both communities live compactly in regions where they constitute up to 90 percent of the total population. In the case of the Azerbaijanis, the area in question comprises the Bolnisi, Marneuli, and Dmanisi raions southeast of Tbilisi, while the Armenians constitute a majority in Djavakheti (Armenian Djavakhk), in the south of Georgia, bordering on Armenia.

Low-level tensions have existed for decades between the Georgians and the two minority communities, and those tensions trigger sporadic eruptions of violence. In the most recent incidents, some 20 Armenians attacked Georgians in a village in the southern district of Tsalka on 29 January, and a Georgian stabbed and fatally wounded an elderly Azerbaijani in Dmanisi on 3 February in a dispute over land.

Members of both ethnic communities tend to identify with the country of their ethnicity, rather than the country of which they are technically citizens. Zurab Melikishvili, governor of the Azerbaijani-populated region, was quoted by the Azerbaijani daily "Zerkalo" in December as saying "many local residents do not even understand what country they live in." Earlier last year, "Zerkalo" noted that during the April 2000 Georgian presidential election some bewildered Azerbaijani voters had asked why the name of then-Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev did not figure on the ballot paper.

Among both communities, knowledge of the Georgian language is rare, with Russian being the most commonly known second language. Consequently, the Azerbaijanis tend to watch Azerbaijani (and Turkish) television channels, rather than Georgian, while the Armenians of Djavakheti watch Armenian and Russian programming. In light of the strong ethnic identity among these two minority communities, their interest in or even awareness of national Georgian issues is fundamentally hindered by the twin barriers of limited language and a lack of access to the national media.

For that reason, the new Georgian leadership's campaign to win the hearts and minds of the two communities began with the introduction of a token 15-minute program on state television specifically targeting each ethnic group. A similar move tried to encourage the participation of the regions' ethnic Azerbaijani and Armenian voters in the 4 January pre-term presidential election by printing ballot papers in Armenian and Azerbaijani, as well as Georgian, in order to avoid a situation in which voters with no knowledge of Georgian would have to ask polling station officials for assistance in marking ballot papers. This proved logistically impossible, and ballot papers were instead printed in both Georgian and Russian.

In a further gesture to Azerbaijanis' sensibilities, the Georgian government will restore historic Azerbaijani village names that were replaced by Georgian toponyms, Caucasus Press reported on 22 January.

Observers point out, however, that the new Georgian leadership will have its work cut out to secure the support of the Azerbaijani community. The region southeast of Tbilisi is predominantly agricultural, with many Azerbaijanis having lost out during the privatization of agricultural land, and those who do engage in farming encounter serious problems when they try to transport their produce to Azerbaijan to sell. In addition, the militant nationalist rhetoric of new Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has engendered in many Azerbaijanis fear of a backlash against non-Georgians comparable to that unleashed under Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1990-91. And according to "Zerkalo" of 23 December, some Azerbaijanis are unhappy at the choice as Georgia's new state flag of the banner of Saakashvili's National Movement. That flag -- featuring five red crosses on a white background -- dates back to the 13th century and has purely Christian connotations.

The Armenians of Djavakheti pose an even more daunting challenge to Tbilisi. The region, one of the poorest in Georgia, has suffered decades of economic neglect and underdevelopment. As with the neighboring Azerbaijani community, the Djavakhk population is seriously impoverished and the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki and accompanying service industry is the largest source of employment, providing jobs for many local Armenians.

Moreover, the Russian base has not just economic but also strategic significance for Djavakheti. The region's population is particularly sensitive to the proximity of Armenia's historic foe Turkey, especially as much of the local population are descendants of the Armenian refugees who fled Ottoman Turkey in the aftermath of the genocide in the early 20th century. In addition, Djavakheti was actually invaded by the Turkish army in 1918, prior to the extension of Soviet rule, and the region's border with Turkey is twice the length of that with Armenia. The Russian base, which will mark its 75th anniversary this year, therefore provides psychological reassurance to the Armenian community and indeed is viewed as the sole guarantee of their security.

This stance has been further hardened over the past decade by the failure of the Georgian state to meet the most basic needs of Djavakheti's largely Armenian population. The region's geographical isolation from the rest of Georgia has been compounded by decades of neglect of infrastructure, with roads that have not been repaired or repaved in nearly two decades. Local Armenians therefore find it more convenient to travel to neighboring Armenia for such necessities as medical care and hospitalization, as well as for higher education.

That socioeconomic crisis has given rise to a degree of political dissatisfaction, fuelled by years of autocratic rule by local governors directly appointed by the Georgian president, and which has found expression in a growing movement for greater political rights and representation. The most prominent advocate for the local Armenians to emerge in recent years is an unofficial political party known as Virk. This group, denied formal certification as a political party by the Georgian authorities despite repeated appeals, has broadened its popular support in recent months by presenting itself as a product of local civil society along the lines of Saakashvili's "rose revolution."

Virk also enjoys growing support in neighboring Armenia. The group has demonstrated impressive prudence and maturity, acknowledging that to seek anything greater than autonomy for Djavakhk would be both dangerous and threatening to Tbilisi, and downplaying more aggressive calls by some for outright secession or unification with Armenia. But any continued neglect of the core economic problems in the region could weaken this moderate stance. And politically, it would be to Tbilisi's advantage to recognize Virk as an official political party and treat it as a legitimate partner in the search for solutions to the region's problems, thereby preempting any escalation in the population's demands or discontent.

The danger exists, however, that faced with more urgent problems such as galvanizing the economy, meeting popular expectations of an increase in living standards, and the standoff with embattled Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze, the new Georgian leadership will continue to delay addressing the challenge posed by the resentful Azerbaijani and Armenian communities. Ironically, it was Abashidze who, possibly in a bid to shore up his own increasingly precarious hold on power, has proposed the most rational approach to defusing the tensions between Georgia's historic provinces and the central government -- by transforming the country into a full-fledged federation.

In a 16 January letter to President Saakashvili, Djavakhk-based NGOs similarly argued that the Georgian constitution should be amended to establish a federative or confederative structure. Such a move, they reasoned, would not only strengthen Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, but facilitate a solution to Djavakhk's long-standing political, socioeconomic, and cultural neglect.

Twenty combatants were killed in recent armed clashes in the Argo district of the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan, Afghanistan Television reported on 8 February. According to the report, "clashes between armed men" began on 5 February and ended three days later after intervention by the Afghan Defense Ministry. The report did not elaborate on the causes of the fighting. AT

Deputy Interior Minister Hilalludin Hilal said the fighting in Afghanistan's northeastern Badakhshan Province represents an attempt by two rival commanders to control revenues from the opium trade, "The New York Times," reported on 9 February. The fighting pitted militia troops loyal to the district chief against forces loyal to the Argo district police chief, according to Hilal. The two men, who went unnamed, have reportedly been at odds since November. Badakhshan Province is among the leading locations of opium production in the country and serves as a major route for transporting narcotics to Tajikistan on the way to Russia and Europe, the New York daily added. AT

Afghan Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari said he rejects anything prohibited by "divine law" and supports measures taken in Afghanistan that are in accord with sharia (Islamic law), Hindukosh news agency reported on 8 February. Shinwari reportedly added that steps taken by the governor of the western Afghan province of Herat, Mohammad Ismail Khan, to uphold Islamic law are praiseworthy, while he warned Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin not to continue broadcasts of female singers on state-owned Afghanistan Television. Shinwari warned of unspecified consequences if the broadcasts continue. The controversy began when Afghanistan Television surprised its prime-time viewers on 12 January by showing an old film clip of a popular female Afghan singer (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January and 5 February 2004). The issue marks an early hurdle in the implementation of the new Afghan Constitution, which guarantees equal rights for men and women. AT

The director-general of Afghanistan's Counternarcotics Department, Mirwais Yasini, announced that the war on drugs has begun in Afghanistan, AFP reported on 8 February. Speaking at the 8-9 February International Conference on Counternarcotics in Kabul, Yasini said his department's British-trained elite unit carried out a top-secret operation in January that led to the seizure of around 2 tons of drugs in the city of Shurabak in Badakhshan Province. The U.S. military destroyed the laboratory by bombing it once the ground operation was completed, he added. The operation in Shurabak "was only the beginning of our fight against drugs," Yasini told the conference, adding that his department "will continue these kind of operations." The executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, issued a public statement saying the international community risks an "opium economy undermining all that has been achieved in creating a democratic new Afghanistan" if it does not commit itself to reducing Afghan drug production, AFP reported. Yasini has highlighted his country's growing drug problem and has sought broader international aid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2004). It is estimated that Afghanistan is responsible for two-thirds of the world's illegal opium production. AT

Ali Hashemi, chief of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, arrived in Kabul on 7 February to participate in the 8-9 February International Conference on Counternarcotics, IRNA reported. Counternarcotics officials from some 50 countries will be at the event, according to IRNA. UN Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Maria Costa said in a press release that the war on drugs will contribute to the war on terror, because there is "mounting evidence of drug money being used to finance criminal activities, including terrorism" ( In Hamedan on 7 February, police counternarcotics chief Colonel Mehdi Aboui said the 162 tons of drugs seized in Iran since March is 24 percent more than in the same period one year earlier, IRNA reported. Battling drug trafficking costs Iran more than $2 billion a year, he said. Aboui added that the impurity rate has climbed from 60 percent two years ago to 90 percent this year. He did not explain this phenomenon. BS

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi pledged in a 6 February letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that parliamentary elections will take place as scheduled on 20 February even though the Guardians Council is not cooperating with Khamenei's instructions to reinstate more candidates, IRNA and state radio reported on 7 February. "Your Eminence's instructions were not followed, and the list which was drawn up did not meet our minimum requirements," the letter said. Khamenei on 7 February thanked the president and speaker for their efforts. The country needs unity, he told them, and he urged officials to put aside their grievances and execute their responsibilities. "Holding elections is of vital importance to our country and nation because it serves their interests," Khamenei said. "Thus they must be healthy and dynamic and the people must take part in them enthusiastically. That is one of the duties of our officials." BS

Hojatoleslam Gholamreza Mesbahi and Seyyed Mehdi Tabatabai, who are members of the conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mubarez-i Tehran), are being listed as candidates of the conservative Islamic Iran Developers Coalition (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami), which dominated the Tehran municipal-council elections, ISNA reported on 6 February. Mesbahi, who serves on the clerical organization's central council, said that body will not present a separate candidate list for the 20 February parliamentary elections. Mesbahi added that Hojatoleslam Ahmad Ahmadi and Abbas Ali Akhtari are not members of his organization, but it supports them and they are on the Abadgaran list. "The very same group which formed the [Tehran municipal] council and, praise God, has done well and has appointed a good mayor will, God willing, propose good [parliamentary candidates]," an Expediency Council member and adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, told a 5 February gathering of more than 1,800 Friday prayer leaders. Nateq-Nuri asked the audience the name of this group, and when it responded with "Abadgaran," he said, "Remember the name. There are learned people among them." BS

Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, who is a member of the pro-reform Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mubarez), said on 7 February that his organization is considering whether it will submit a list of candidates it backs for the elections, IRNA reported. That depends, however, on its ultimate decision on participation in the elections, he said. Ansari said the public is watching developments closely, and there is still the possibility of competitive elections although many well-known figures will not be running. "If we reached the point that the minimum condition for a competitive election is prepared, we would ask the people to hold a vibrant election and not to let the current restrictions turn the House of the People into a 'House of a section of the people,'" Ansari added. BS

About 200 students affiliated with the Allameh wing of the Office for Strengthening Unity marched on 8 February along Inqilab Avenue toward the University of Tehran and chanted slogans such as "Death to Tyranny," "Referendum, Referendum. This is the slogan of the people," and "Voting in Elections, Treachery, Treachery," Fars News Agency reported. Once at the university, the demonstrators called for President Khatami's resignation, dpa reported, citing ISNA. The Tehran governorate had previously rejected a request by the students to hold a rally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2004). BS

Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, met with President Khatami in Tehran on 9 February in the first open meeting between a member of the British royal family and an Islamic Republic official, dpa reported. The crown prince was scheduled to visit Bam, the Kerman Province city that was devastated by an earthquake on 26 December. Prince Charles's 8 February arrival in Tehran was a low-key event, with London's "The Times" of 9 February describing a deserted airport with "unimpressed" cleaning crews and "only a gaggle of foreign press huddled around the arrivals gate." A "disappointed onlooker" said he was expecting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and a shopkeeper questioned the timing of the visit: "Why has he come to Iran now, just as our democracy has come under attack? He should have stayed away to show his support." BS

A United Nations team of experts arrived in Iraq on 7 February to begin its assessment of the feasibility of holding national direct elections there, international media reported. The team, led by Lakhdar Brahimi, UN senior adviser on Iraq, met with the Iraqi Governing Council on 8 February. Brahimi told reporters that "the United Nations only confirms its firm desire to do everything possible to help the Iraqi get beyond the long ordeal they have suffered and to restore their independence and sovereignty and rebuild Iraq," AP reported. Muhsin Abd al-Hamid, the Iraqi Governing Council's president for the month of February, said "Brahimi's wisdom in resolving conflicts in the Arab and Islamic world proves that he will give us advice that allows us to take the right decision in the interest of the Iraqi people." Brahimi also met on 8 February with Governing Council member and head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, Reuters reported. Al-Hakim gave Brahimi a report prepared by Iraqi experts on the prospects for organizing early elections. KR

Three leading Iraqi figures stressed on 7 February that any assessment by the United Nations with regard to the possibility of holding early national direct elections in Iraq will not be binding, Arab media reported the same day. SCIRI spokesman Hamid al-Bayati said the UN's assessment is important for Iraqis because they want to implement the decisions of the religious authorities, who have said they would temper their calls for early elections should the UN deem that not possible, Voice of the Mujahedin reported. Iraqi Governing Council member Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i said the UN assessment will be considered a significant opinion by the Governing Council, adding that it will "undoubtedly influence the Iraqi political decision," Al-Jazeera television reported. Meanwhile, Iraqi Governing Council President for February al-Hamid told Al-Arabiyah television that "we are not obliged to accept the conclusions that will be reached by the [UN]. We judge matters, taking into consideration national consensus and the interests of the Iraqi people. I hope that the conclusions that will be reached by the delegation will be in harmony with what we will agree upon." KR

The first group of Japan's main Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) arrived in Al-Samawah on 8 February, Kyodo World Service reported. The 60-member group is part of a 90-member deployment, the rest of which is expected to travel to Iraq from Kuwait on 9 February. The Japanese troops traveled overland in a 25-vehicle convoy to meet an advance team of some 30 soldiers. According to Kyodo, the troops will focus on setting up their camp and facilities before the arrival of additional Japanese troops expected in late February and in March. The main GSDF dispatch will reportedly begin its humanitarian work with local residents in early April. KR

U.S. President George W. Bush in an interview broadcast on 8 February on NBC television defended his administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. Regarding his administration's prewar claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Bush said: "I expected to find the weapons." "I expected there to be stockpiles of weapons,... there's theories as to where the weapons went. They could have been destroyed during the war. Saddam and his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported to another country, and we'll find out." Bush said that prior to the war "there was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America," because of Iraq's presumed capacity to produce WMD. "The man was a threat, and we dealt with him," Bush said. Speaking of the previous U.S. policy of containing Iraq, he added: "Containment doesn't work with a man who is a madman." The transcript of the president's interview can be found on the MSNBC website ( KR