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Newsline - February 20, 2004


MILITARY OFFICIAL DESCRIBES NEW MISSILE-WARHEAD PROTOTYPE
First Deputy Chief of General Staff Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii on 19 February provided details of the new weapons-system prototype that President Vladimir Putin said was tested this week during the Russian strategic forces' exercises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). One of the missiles fired on 18 February carried an "experimental apparatus" -- presumably a prototype reentry vehicle -- "able to change its flight path and altitude at hypersonic speed by maneuvering in the atmosphere" and which "can breach missile-defense systems," ITAR-TASS quoted Baluevskii as saying. Russia has no plans to deploy weapons based on the prototype any time soon, he said, but will deploy "new strategic missile systems" by 2010. While Baluevskii said he is sure "the Americans will be surprised" by the prototype, U.S. Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he does not think it will have any impact on U.S.-Russian relations. They've got to design a missile force that they think is sufficient for deterrence, just like we do," Reuters quoted Myers as saying. JB

LIBERAL WEEKLY'S OFFICES RAIDED ONCE AGAIN
The offices of the news magazine "Novoye vremya" were seized on 19 February by a group of people representing Primeks, a firm that claims ownership of the central Moscow building in which the liberal weekly's editorial offices are located, Russian news agencies reported. The first seizure of the "Novoye vremya" offices by Primeks raiders took place last September, after which the magazine sued Primeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 29 September, and 1 October 2003). "Novoye Vremya" Deputy Editor Vadim Dubnov told newsru.com on 19 February that this time the raiders were preceded by court bailiffs who delivered a ruling by the Tyumen Arbitration Court, which had lifted an order impounding the building, thereby apparently giving Primeks a green light to reassert its property claim. The raiders prevented "Novoye vremya" journalists already in the office from leaving and others from entering. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 19 February, the weekly's Editor in Chief Aleksandr Pumpyanskii called the action "banditry" carried out by "professional invaders who know how to forge documents or buy officials." JB

JUSTICE MINISTRY THREATENS TO SUE YUKOS FOR TORTURE CHARGES...
The Justice Ministry on 19 February threatened to sue lawyers of jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii if they continue making allegations that their client is being held in conditions that amount to torture, RIA-Novosti reported. Khodorkovskii's lawyer Genrikh Padva earlier told Ekho Moskvy that while his client is not being tortured in the literal sense of the word, international organizations that monitor prison conditions say "confinement in Russian prisons is itself equivalent to torture." The head of the Justice Ministry's press service, Boris Kalyagin, said that the conditions of Khodorkovskii's imprisonment meet international standards, and that he has a television, access to periodicals, a refrigerator, and can even order restaurant food, Interfax reported on 19 February. Khodorkovskii is legally allowed to spend two hours a day outdoors, Kalyagin said, adding: "I don't always have the chance to spend that much time outdoors." Khodorkovskii also has access to a gym and can wash once a week "and more often, if he wants," Kalyagin said. Khodorkovskii is being held in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina prison. JB

...WHILE LAWYER SAYS TWO YUKOS DETAINEES' HEALTH IS FAILING
One of Yukos' lawyers, Robert Amsterdam, told the BBC on 19 February that the health of Yukos security official Aleksei Pichugin has been seriously undermined as a result of torture at the hands of Federal Security Service agents last summer. According to Amsterdam, Pichugin was forced to take medicines that caused a severe physical reaction. "He was tortured by means of medicines," Amsterdam said. "He was given a medical checkup without his permission. And that checkup, carried out without his lawyer being present, can be characterized as torture and inhuman treatment of a prisoner." Amsterdam also said that the health of Platon Lebedev, the imprisoned Group Menatep chief and key Yukos shareholder, has seriously deteriorated. Lebedev, he said, has serious problems with his heart and blood pressure and is currently located in the prison's hospital. Pichugin and Lebedev are being held in Moscow's Lefortovo prison. JB

NATIONALIST EDITOR ACQUITTED OF RACIAL INCITEMENT
A Moscow Municipal Court jury on 19 February acquitted Andrei Semiletnikov, deputy editor of the nationalist newspaper "Russkii khozyain," on charges of organizing racially motivated violence at an outdoor market in southern Moscow on 21 April 2001, on the occasion of Adolf Hitler's birthday, and inciting minors to commit a serious crime, RIA-Novosti reported. The jury convicted three other defendants for participating in the attack on vendors at the Yasenevo market, while a fifth, "Russkii khozyain" reporter Elena Lepilina, was acquitted of participating in the attack. Witnesses had accused Semiletnikov of greeting youths gathered near his newspaper's office with a Nazi salute and addressing them prior to the market rampage. In the attack, some 150 skinheads beat up traders of non-Slavic appearance, "The Moscow Times" reported on 20 February. In August 2002, a Moscow Municipal Court granted a Media Ministry request to close down "Russkii khozyain" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 August 2002). JB

OPPOSITION CANDIDATES GANG UP ON PUTIN...
"Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal," No. 107, argued that presidential candidates Nikolai Kharitonov, Irina Khakamada, and Sergei Glazev apparently have a tacit agreement not to attack each other but to focus their criticism on incumbent President Putin. This is the opposite of what the Kremlin's political strategists would have wanted, according to the weekly, which said they would prefer a repetition of the end of the State Duma campaign "when the majority of the political parties went from criticizing Unified Russia to undermining each other." As a result, these candidates are criticizing Putin during the televised election debates without anyone to rebut their statements, because Putin declined to participate in the debates. The weekly concludes that what "we are witnessing is a captivating social experiment. What happens if television viewers are told three times a week that Putin is leading the nation in the wrong direction? Such statements were all right under Yeltsin -- during the democratic turbulence of the 1990s, no one would pay attention." The daily added that the debates are more interesting than news broadcasts on ORT and RTR, and "this will mean that the opposition could get decent ratings." JAC

...AS RYBKIN TOLD HE CAN'T DEBATE FROM LONDON
Earlier this week, NTV announced that it is not going to air election debates during the evening because of expected low ratings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission decided on 19 February that presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin's request to participate in the election debates from London via telelink is "not in accordance with the law," ITAR-TASS reported. According to the commission, the request is "in breach of the principle of equality of all candidates." JAC

ONE MOTHERLAND PARTY BEATS THE OTHER IN RACE TO REGISTER
The Justice Ministry registered on 19 February the newly renamed Motherland party, which was formerly known as the Russian Regions party and is headed by State Duma Deputy Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin. The Russian Regions party was a member of the Motherland bloc, which now has a faction in the State Duma. Presidential candidate Glazev, who was recently ousted from leadership of the Russian Regions party, earlier tried to set up his own Motherland-People's Patriotic Union party. Glazev told reporters that the participants in the Motherland bloc view the Russian Region party's decision to rename itself Motherland as a "treacherous stab in the back," ITAR-TASS reported. The Justice Ministry explained its quick action by saying that it was not registering a new party but simply changing the name of an already registered party, RTR reported. According to "Rossiiskaya gazeta," the Motherland bloc's Duma faction is split equally, with 18 supporters of Rogozin and 18 supporters of Glazev. JAC

KALININGRAD FEELS MOSCOW'S WRATH AT BELARUS
Belarus's Beltranzhaz cut off natural gas supplies to Kaliningrad residents on 18 February, after Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Belarus, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). The hot-water supply was cut off to save heat for residents and public institutions, ITAR-TASS reported the next day. Afterward, Kaliningrad Governor Vladimir Yegorov appealed on the evening of 18 February for immediate assistance from the presidential administration and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and a gas pipeline between Latvia and Lithuania that has not been in use for the past 14 years was reactivated to supply some gas to the exclave, although it provided only 30 percent of normal consumption, Regnum and RosBalt reported. By late afternoon local time on 19 February, the gas supply to the region had been normalized. However, the supply agreement negotiated between Beltranzhaz and Russia's Transneft (see Belarus item in "RFE/RL Newsline Part 2") covers only a 10-day period after which new negotiations will have to be held. On 19 February, outside temperatures in Kaliningrad dipped to minus 8 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit). JAC

TULA GOVERNMENT EXPERIENCES SHAKE-UP...
Six deputy governors of Tula Oblast resigned on 19 February, Regnum reported, citing Tula State Radio and Television Company. Three deputy governors who were recently appointed remain. According to the station, the deputy governors are not commenting publicly, but a number of different theories are floating around Tula. One is that the socioeconomic crisis in the region triggered their resignations, and a second theory is that they wanted to express their disagreement with Tula Oblast Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev's decision to seek a third term. A third theory, according to regions.ru, is that Starodubtsev blames his deputies for the poor performance of the Communist Party in the State Duma elections in what is traditionally considered part of the "Red Belt." According to RIA-Novosti, the official reason for the resignations is the unsatisfactory performance of the oblast economy. JAC

...AS OBLAST HIT BY ASSASSINATION OF TWO POLITICAL FIGURES IN ONE WEEK
Ruslan Konovalov, the head of the Tula Oblast branch of the Federal Service for Financial Improvement and Bankruptcy, was slain outside his home on 18 February, Regnum reported. A murder weapon has not been found, but police suspect that he was hit with a blunt object. Investigators are not excluding the possibility that his killing was connected with his job. The previous day, Alik Karimov, deputy chairman of the oblast branch of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), was shot and killed in front of his home, regions.ru reported. According to the website, Karimov was an important businessman in the region and financed the local LDPR branch. Regions.ru reported that investigators have not ruled out that the killing is connected to his political activities; however, ITAR-TASS and Tula State Television and Radio reported that police believe a political motive is unlikely. JAC

NEW DEPUTY MINISTER NAMED
Prime Minister Kasyanov has appointed Yelena Danilova as deputy minister for economic development and trade, "Vremya novostei" reported on 19 February. Danilova will replace Roald Piskopell, who retired. She will oversee external economic relations. She previously headed the department for trade policy and multilateral negotiations at the ministry. JAC

SUSPECTS IN CHECHEN KILLING DETAINED IN QATAR
Police in Qatar apprehended two suspects on 19 February in connection with the car-bomb killing six days earlier of former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, www.chechenpress.com reported on 20 February, citing RIA-Novosti (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT DOWNPLAYS OPPOSITION CALLS FOR REFERENDUM OF CONFIDENCE...
In an interview with four leading Armenian television channels on 19 February, the first anniversary of the first round of the election in which he won a second term, President Robert Kocharian rejected as unconstitutional opposition demands for a nationwide referendum of confidence in him, Noyan Tapan and Russian news agencies reported. He pointed out that the constitution allows for the president to be replaced only if he resigns, is impeached, or is unable due to poor health to continue to discharge his duties. Kocharian said he will not seek a third presidential term, and that it is too early to comment on who might succeed him. Kocharian also downplayed the disagreements that have emerged within the ruling three-party coalition and predicted that its members will nonetheless continue to cooperate, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

...RULES OUT STARTING KARABAKH PEACE TALKS FROM SCRATCH
Kocharian also rejected during his 19 February interview recent statements by Azerbaijani officials calling for a fresh start to the search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan and ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). He stressed that the Armenian leadership has spent years trying to create a favorable environment for achieving such a settlement and has no intention of writing off those efforts. He suggested that if Baku wants to "go back to square one, [the Azerbaijani authorities] should address their proposals to Stepanakert and see whether Karabakh is prepared to negotiate." Kocharian said Armenia will continue to follow the present complementary foreign policy that balances strong ties with Russia and integration into European structures, Russian news agencies reported. He noted that Armenia's neighbors Azerbaijan and Georgia have also now embarked on such a balanced policy. LF

ARMENIA APPOINTS FIRST OMBUDSMAN
Larisa Alaverdian, a member of the presidential Commission on Human Rights, was formally appointed as ombudsman on 19 February, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. President Kocharian nominated her for that post on 29 January. The pro-presidential parliament majority swiftly endorsed her candidacy, but the opposition minority factions protested it, arguing that as a presidential nominee she would be unlikely to challenge actions by the authorities that encroached on citizens' constitutionally guaranteed rights. LF

ARMENIA INTERCEPTS RADIOACTIVE CARGO BOUND FOR IRAN
Armenian experts are seeking to identify the origin of a highly radioactive object found by Armenian customs officials in a consignment of scrap metal bound for Iran, ITAR-TASS reported on 20 February, quoting State Nuclear Control Committee Chairman Ashot Martirosian. He said the object did not originate at Armenia's nuclear-power station, and that the International Atomic Energy Agency has been informed of the find. LF

DOUBTS EXPRESSED THAT AZERBAIJANI GUILTY OF ARMENIAN OFFICER'S MURDER
Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Ramiz Melikov was quoted by the online daily www.zerkalo.az on 20 February as saying that the Armenian Defense Ministry acted prematurely in naming an Azerbaijani officer, Ramil Safarov, as having killing an Armenian fellow participant at a training course in Hungary organized under the auspices of NATO's Partnership for Peace program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). Melikov said Safarov was detained as a suspect in the killing, but his guilt must be proven in court. Turan on 20 February quoted unnamed Azerbaijani media as dismissing the reported murder as an Armenian fabrication. Turan also reported that according to Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry, some of Safarov's close relatives were killed when Armenian forces took control of his native Djabrail Raion in 1993. In a 19 February statement, the Armenian Foreign Ministry condemned the killing as "the logical consequence of the anti-Armenian hysteria that has been left unreined by the Azeri authorities over the years and of the warmongering militarist propaganda of recent months, which consistently infects all of Azeri society," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

DETAINED AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITIONISTS END HUNGER STRIKE
Several dozen Azerbaijani opposition activists detained for their alleged role in the clashes in Baku on 15-16 October between police and opposition sympathizers protesting the apparent rigging of the outcome of the 15 October presidential ballot have ended the hunger strike they began earlier this month, Turan reported on 19 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2004). The hunger strikers, who were protesting the delay in bringing them to trial, were persuaded by opposition party leaders Ali Kerimli (Azerbaijan Popular Front Party progressive wing) and Isa Qambar (Musavat) to abandon their fast. LF

FORMER GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S SON-IN-LAW ARRESTED
Georgian police arrested Gia Djokhtaberidze at Tbilisi airport on 20 February as he was about to fly to Paris, Georgian and international media reported. Djokhtaberidze, who is married to former President Eduard Shevardnadze's daughter Manana, is the director and majority shareholder in Magticom, Georgia's largest mobile-telephone provider. He was summoned by the Prosecutor-General's Office for questioning on 26 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2004) and again on 17 February. He is suspected of tax evasion. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARIAN IMPLICATED IN TAX EVASION
The Prosecutor-General's Office ordered on 19 February that the premises of the Omega group and of other companies owned by parliament deputy Zaza Okuashvili be sealed and searched, Georgian media reported. Okuashvili also owns the Iberia television station and the newspaper "Akhali epokha," and the sealing of their premises triggered protests that the Georgian authorities were violating the principle of media freedom. Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili told journalists later on 19 February that the search of Omega's offices yielded devices to counterfeit excise stamps. The independent television station Rustavi-2 quoted an unnamed spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office as estimating that Omega, which is Georgia's largest cigarette importer, failed to pay excise duties totaling some 12 million laris ($5.8 million). Visiting Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer told journalists after meeting with Okruashvili late on 19 February that "the struggle against corruption and crime must net exceed the bounds of the law," Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN ELECTION DEADLINE AGAIN EXTENDED
Visiting Council of Europe Secretary-General Schwimmer told journalists on 19 February that the top Georgian officials he met with that day were cool to his proposal that the election law be amended to lower from 7 percent to 5 percent the barrier for parliamentary representation under the proportional system, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). Also on 19 February, the Central Election Commission extended for a second time, from 19 February to 21 February, the deadline for registering election blocs to contest the 28 March ballot for 150 parliamentary mandates to be distributed under the proportional system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said on 19 February that the Burdjanadze-Democrats alignment he co-heads will not form an election bloc with President Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement, but that the two will field a joint list of candidates. LF

KAZAKHSTAN PREPARES TO TACKLE SYR DARYA FLOODING PROBLEM INDEPENDENTLY
Kazakhstan has been unable to engage in satisfactory dialog with its neighbors on solving the problem of excess water in the Syr Darya River, so the Kazakh side plans to deal with the problem independently, Kazakh Agriculture Ministry Water Resources Committee Chairman Anatolii Ryabtsev said in an article in the 19 February issue of the independent Almaty weekly "Ekspress K." The Kazakh solution is to construct another reservoir on the lower Syr Darya to take excess water from the river and either release it for use during irrigation season or allow it to reach the Aral Sea. According to gazeta.kz on 20 February, steps taken by Kyrgyzstan to reduce the outflow from its Toktogul Reservoir are having some effect in reducing flood danger further down the river, but Uzbekistan has been unable to move water from the Kazakh Shardara Reservoir to the Uzbek Arnasai Reservoir fast enough to remove the danger that the river will destroy the Shardara power dam. BB

OSCE REPRESENTATIVE CALLS ON KAZAKHSTAN NOT TO ADOPT GOVERNMENT VERSION OF MEDIA LAW
Ambassador Anton Rupnik, head of the OSCE Center in Almaty, told the Third Congress of Journalists of Kazakhstan, presently under way in Atyrau, that it is not in Kazakhstan's interest to adopt the government version of a new law on the media, gazeta.kz reported on 20 February. He argued that experience has shown that only countries that protect freedom of speech and media pluralism can expect long-term stability. The new media law, still making its way through the legislative process, has been criticized for giving the authorities too much control over the media. In a message to the congress, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev called on the country's journalists to defend the interests of both society and the state, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan on 19 February. BB

KAZAKH-U.S. FIVE-YEAR MILITARY-COOPERATION PLAN PRESENTED
A five-year draft plan for military cooperation between Kazakhstan and the United States was made public on 19 February in Astana, gazeta.kz reported the same day, quoting the press service of the Kazakh Defense Ministry. The plan itself had been signed by representatives of the two countries in September 2003. According to the Kazakh side, this is the first document of such scope to be signed between the United States and any Central Asian state. It covers common efforts in the fight against international terrorism, strengthening Kazakhstan's air defenses and the military infrastructure of the Caspian region, as well as the supply of U.S. military equipment. U.S. military officials who took part in the presentation of the plan praised Kazakhstan for its leading role in the region in organizing a professional military. BB

KYRGYZ COURT SENTENCES CONVICTED TERRORISTS TO DEATH
Kyrgyzstan's Military Court has sentenced to death two Uzbek citizens who had been convicted for preparing the bombing of a major Bishkek market in late 2002, RIA-Novosti reported on 19 February. The two, Ilkhon Izattulaev and Aziz Abdullaev, allegedly members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, were charged with organizing a terrorist act and with premeditated murder, and partially admitted their guilt. Seven people were killed in the bombing and 30 were wounded. According to Kyrgyz law enforcement, the two terrorists had been assigned to attack the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, but chose an easier target. BB

TAJIKISTAN ADOPTS LAW ON FREE ECONOMIC ZONES
The lower chamber of the Tajik parliament voted unanimously on 18 February in favor of a draft bill pertaining to free economic zones, Asia Plus-Blitz and "Novye izvestiya" reported on 18 and 19 February, respectively. Economy and Trade Minister Hakim Soliev told legislators that the bill takes into consideration the experience in creating such zones of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. He said such zones could host any type of economic activity not expressly prohibited under Tajik law, and that their purpose is to attract foreign investment and technology and create new jobs, thereby helping to reduce poverty. LF

TURKMENISTAN TO DOUBLE ELECTRICITY EXPORTS TO TURKEY
Following talks in Ashgabat on18 February, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Hilmi Guler signed a protocol of intent under which Turkmenistan will double, from 300 to 600 megawatts, the amount of electricity it will export to Turkey this year, ITAR-TASS and www.turkmenistan.ru reported. Guler said Ankara also hopes to expedite a solution to problems hindering the export of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Turkey, after which Turkey could serve as a transit country for Turkmen natural-gas exports to Europe. LF

WELL-KNOWN TURKMEN AUTHOR FORBIDDEN TO LEAVE COUNTRY
The 78-year-old Turkmen author Rakhim Esenov has had both his Turkmen and Russian passports confiscated by the authorities and has been forbidden to leave Turkmenistan, centrasia.ru reported on 19 February, quoting a report from the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial. Esenov has been questioned extensively by the Turkmen security services about his connections with some of the persons alleged to have been involved in the purported assassination or coup attempt against President Niyazov in November 2002. Esenov has been trying in vain to obtain an exit visa to go to Moscow for medical treatment since May 2003. BB

INTERNATIONAL NGOS MUST REREGISTER IN UZBEKISTAN
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry on 19 February warned international NGOs working in Uzbekistan that they are required to reregister with the Justice Ministry by 1 March or their bank accounts will be frozen, Deutsche Welle reported. Earlier in the week, domestic NGOs in Bukhara reported their bank accounts were being frozen unless they agreed to move their accounts to two approved banks in the city. First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov tried to convince the foreign NGOs that the Uzbek attitude toward them and their work has not changed, but at least some of the foreigners were skeptical, according to the news agency. BB

GAZPROM RESUMES GAS SUPPLY TO BELARUS...
Gazprom resumed deliveries of natural gas to and via Belarus on 19 February after the country's gas-pipeline operator, Beltranshaz, signed another short-term gas contract with Russia's Transneft, Belapan reported. Beltranshaz contracted to buy 640 million cubic meters of gas at the price of $47 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is expected to satisfy Belarus's needs in the following 10 days. The previous day, Gazprom cut off the gas flow across Belarus, charging that Minsk has exhausted its contracted gas quota and began siphoning off Russian gas sent in transit to Poland and Germany (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). JM

...AS LUKASHENKA LAMBASTES KREMLIN FOR 'TERRORISM'
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 19 February severely criticized the Kremlin for Gazprom's gas-supply halt, Belarusian media reported. "I think it's an act of terrorism at the highest level to take natural gas away from a country that is not totally foreign, from people half of whom have Russian blood in their veins, when it's minus 20 degrees outside," Lukashenka said. The Belarusian president reportedly agreed to the Russian demand to pay a higher price, $50 for 1,000 cubic meters, for gas from Gazprom. But no contract with the Russian gas-transportation monopoly has been signed yet. Simultaneously, Lukashenka ordered his administration to scrutinize all agreements with Russia. "We should lay our precise claims to the Russian leadership," he said. "We cannot engage in charity." The same day, the Belarusian government unilaterally raised its gas transit fee from $0.5 to $1.02 per 1000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers of route, Belapan reported, quoting Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov. JM

LUKASHENKA'S FORMER PROPERTY MANAGER ACCUSED OF EMBEZZLEMENT
The State Security Committee (KGB) on 19 February formally charged Halina Zhuraukova, former chief of the Belarusian presidential administration's Property Management Department, with large-scale embezzlement, Belapan reported, quoting KGB spokesman Alyaksandr Bazanau. If convicted, Zhuraukova faces up to 12 years in prison and confiscation of property. Belarusian law defines large-scale embezzlement as exceeding 17.5 million Belarusian rubles (approximately $8,000). Police arrested Zhuraukova on 10 February (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 18 February 2004). JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT FORMS CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION
The Verkhovna Rada on 19 February approved two new members of the Central Election Commission (TsVK), thus bringing the TsVK to its full strength of 15 people, Ukrainian media reported. Last week, the legislature approved 10 other members of the TsVK. The TsVK reportedly comprises 11 members delegated by pro-government forces, two by the Communist Party, and one each by the Socialist Party and Our Ukraine. The TsVK on 19 February unanimously elected Serhiy Kivalov as its chairman. Kivalov, 49, who has until recently been a lawmaker, is head of the High Council of Justice and president of the Odesa National Law Academy. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT ABOLISHES POSTS OF SECURITY AGENTS AT GOVERNMENT BODIES
President Leonid Kuchma has signed a decree abolishing the Soviet-era practice of assigning special-service agents to top-level government bodies -- the parliament's staff, the presidential administration, the Cabinet of Ministers, the Prosecutor-General's Office, the staff of the National Security and Defense Council, and central executive agencies -- Interfax reported on 18 February. The decision was reportedly made to enhance democratic civil control over the activity of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, honor Ukraine's international commitments to integrate into the EU, and eliminate the negative legacy of the Soviet KGB. Ihor Smeshko, who heads the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said all agents who lost their jobs under the presidential decree will be offered equivalent positions within the SBU. JM

PRO-RUSSIAN PICKET MARKS 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF CRIMEA'S TRANSFER TO UKRAINE
Some 100 demonstrators who want Crimea to rejoin Russia held a demonstration in Simferopol on 19 February to commemorate 50 years since Crimea was made part of the Ukrainian SSR, Interfax reported. The picketers held Russian flags and posters reading "50 Years of Deportation of the Russian People of Crimea," "Crimea and Russia Must Unite," "Vladimir Putin, Return Crimea to Russia," and "Russian Language Must Be Given State Status." JM

UKRAINIAN BROADCASTER COMPLAINS ABOUT JAMMING
Serhiy Sholokh, head of the radio station Kontynent, charged on 19 February that a jammer was switched on at 10:30 a.m. the same day when Kontynent began broadcasting a program by the Ukrainian service of Deutsche Welle, in which intelligence officer Valeriy Kravchenko accused President Leonid Kuchma's regime of spying on opposition and cabinet members (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 19 February 2004), Interfax reported. "Jamming was reported in all districts of Kyiv," Sholokh said in a statement. "Soviet-era means are being used to hamper the radio station's information activity and...the citizens' constitutional right to receive information is being violated." JM

ESTONIAN GOVERNMENT REJECTS BILL EASING NATURALIZATION
The cabinet decided on 19 February not to support an opposition Center Party-proposed bill that would have eased requirements for gaining Estonian citizenship through naturalization, BNS reported. The bill would have amended the Citizenship Law by not requiring applicants for citizenship who were born before 1 January 1939 to pass an Estonian-language examination and prove familiarity with the Estonian constitution and citizenship law. Center Party parliament deputy Mikhail Stalnukhin estimated that the number of such persons is just over 17,000. Another proposed amendment would have allowed persons who settled in Estonia before 1 July 1990 to naturalize by passing a simplified course of study created by the government. Stalnukhin said the number of such stateless people is a little less than 115,000. A government spokeswoman said current examinations are a reliable method of assessing proficiency in Estonian, and that there is no need to change the system. SG

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE APPROVES REPORT ON LATVIA
The European parliament's foreign affairs committee on 19 February approved the report on Latvia prepared by Europarliamentarian Elisabeth Schrodter, BNS reported. According to the report, Latvia's policies regarding citizenship, language, and education are in line with international standards. Still, the committee called on Latvia to ensure the smooth functioning of bilingual education in its schools. It noted that the flexible implementation of the education law could promote social and economic integration of the Russian-speaking minorities and lessen tensions in society. The report recommends that Latvia grant non-citizens the right to vote in local elections and ratify the national minorities convention as soon as possible. It praised the country's efforts in fighting corruption, but pointed out the need to reduce the time of pre-trial investigations, solve the issue of overcrowded jails, and devote more efforts to fighting human trafficking. The European Parliament is scheduled to vote on the report at its meeting on 10 March. SG

PARLIAMENT STARTS IMPEACHMENT OF LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT
Lithuania's parliament has approved formal impeachment proceedings against President Rolandas Paksas by a 62-11 vote with three abstentions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004), "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. The vote came after a six-hour discussion of the lengthy report filed by the special commission that investigated charges against Paksas. Parliament voted to ask the Constitutional Court to rule whether the charges made against Paksas can be treated as violations of the constitution. It is expected that the court may take more than a month before presenting a conclusion, so parliament is unlikely to decide Paksas's fate before April. Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas said parliament will ask the Supreme Court to nominate six judges, two of whom parliament will choose to preside over the impeachment sessions. SG

POLISH RULING PARTY REPORTEDLY SPLIT ON PREMIER'S FUTURE
The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) is divided on whether Leszek Miller should step down as prime minister or stay on, Polish media reported on 19 February, quoting Interior Minister Jerzy Oleksy. SLD parliamentary caucus head Krzysztof Janik confirmed on the private Radio Zet on 20 February that the issue of Miller's possible resignation will be addressed by SLD activists "in several weeks' time." Earlier this week Miller said he will resign as SLD leader in March but will stay on as prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). A poll released on 19 February by the CBOS polling agency showed that 51 percent of Poles negatively assess the performance of Miller's cabinet, 14 percent are satisfied with it, and 31 percent say they are indifferent toward the government. Just 14 percent of respondents said they are glad Miller is premier, while 68 percent were of the opposite opinion. JM

POLAND PROTESTS LACK OF WARNING FROM RUSSIA ABOUT GAS-SUPPLY HALT
Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz spoke by telephone with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, about the recent suspension of gas transit to Poland via Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004), PAP reported, quoting ministry spokesman Boguslaw Majewski. According to Majewski, Cimoszewicz told Ivanov that Poland cannot accept being placed in "such a difficult position" as that occasioned by the 18 February gas-flow halt. "What has happened indicates a clear error in informing, one to which we do not consent. This is not a standard that can apply between neighboring and friendly countries," Majewski said. The same day, Premier Miller shrugged off accusations that Gazprom's gas cutoff might provoke an energy crisis in Poland, which is heavily dependent on Russian gas. "This was not a very tense situation because the gas that we have been getting through Belarus is 30 percent of our requirements," Miller said on Polish Television. "Don't believe those who tell you that we had faced a total crisis in that respect." JM

CZECH PREMIER, FOREIGN MINISTER DEFEND CZECH ROLE IN IRAQ...
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said in parliament on 19 February that the allied military intervention in Iraq was justified and removed from power a cruel dictator, CTK reported. Spidla and Svoboda responded to criticism from the opposition Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), whose representatives said U.S. President George W. Bush and British Premier Tony Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq and that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in that country. The premier and the foreign minister also rejected KSCM criticism that the Czech government's position in the Iraqi crisis ran counter to the national interest. Spidla and Svoboda ignored a KSCM call to follow the U.S. and British examples and set up an investigation commission to clarify the circumstances of Czech decision making during the crisis. Spidla said he is "glad... and proud" of the role played by the Czech contingent dispatched to Iraq, emphasizing that the aid extended to the civilian population there has won Prague sympathy and friends. MS

...WHILE COMMUNISTS OPPOSE SENDING TROOPS TO AFGHANISTAN
Earlier on 19 February, KSCM deputies clashed in parliament with Defense Minister Miroslav Kostelka, opposing the government's plan to dispatch to Afghanistan 120 combat troops and 30 specialists, dpa reported. KSCM lawmaker Alexandr Cerny claimed on the rostrum that a soldier who is about to be sent to Afghanistan attempted suicide by hanging. Kostelka denied the allegation. The vote on the government's plan is slated for 20 February. The senate has already approved the plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15, 26 and 29 January 2004). MS

CZECH REPUBLIC TO END CONSCRIPTION
The Defense Ministry announced on 19 February that military conscription will end in April, as part of the Czech Army's reforms, AFP reported. Ministry spokesman Ladislav Sticha said only 3,600 young men will be conscripted in 2004, and will complete their service in December. The army, he said, will become fully professional on 1 January 2005. Sticha added that the cabinet will nonetheless retain the legal right to reintroduce conscription if necessary. He also said the Czech Army has been reduced in size from 61,000 in 2002 to 44,000 now, and that by 2008 will be only 35,000 strong. MS

CHILD PROSTITUTION IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC TO BE DEBATED IN EUROPARLIAMENT...
The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on 19 February decided that the problem of child prostitution in the Czech Republic should be placed on the Europarliament's agenda next month, when the parliament is to debate progress made toward accession by EU candidates, CTK reported. An amendment to the committee's resolution unanimously approved by its members recommends that the European Parliament express its concern over trafficking in people in general, and over child prostitution at the Czech-German border in particular. The recommendation also calls on Prague to take measures aimed at curbing child prostitution and extending aid to its victims. MS

...WHOSE COMMITTEE SAYS SLOVAKIA MUST CONTINUE FIGHTING CORRUPTION, SOLVE ROMANY PROBLEMS
The draft resolution proposed by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament also says Slovakia should continue fighting corruption and more consistently implement programs for solving problems faced by its Romany minority, TASR reported. The committee also says Slovakia has yet to pass a number of laws to bring legislation in line with EU standards. Dutch Europarliament rapporteur on Slovakia Jan Marinus Wiersma told TASR that the draft report, which will be debated by the Europarliament in March, will not influence the country's 1 May EU accession. However, CTK on the same day quoted Slovak Deputy Premier Pal Csaky as saying Bratislava could face sanctions from the European Commission after accession if it fails to pass the still-missing legislation in a timely fashion. MS

SLOVAKIA PROPOSES TRAINING IRAQI DEMINERS
The Slovak Defense Ministry announced on 19 February that it has proposed to the government to train 15 Iraqi soldiers in mine-clearing, TASR reported. Under the proposal, the training is to take place at the UN peacekeeping training base at Nitra. The cost for the 15-day training session is estimated at 1.14 million crowns ($35,780). An 82-strong Slovak mine-clearing engineering unit is currently stationed in Iraq. MS

HUNGARIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY OFFICIAL SAYS AL-QAEDA SUSPECTED BEHIND TERRORIST ATTACK IN IRAQ
At an extraordinary meeting of parliament's Defense Committee on 19 February, Imre Ivancsik, the political state secretary at the Defense Ministry, said the Al-Qaeda terrorist group might be behind the incident at the Al-Hillah military camp where truck bombs injured 10 Hungarian soldiers (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 19 February 2004), Hungarian media reported. Ivancsik explained that each of the two trucks carried more than 700 kilograms of explosives, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. In addition, one of the suicide bombers who talked to local residents before the incident had an Egyptian accent, Ivancsik said. MSZ

HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER REJECTS 'TWO-SPEED EUROPE'
Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs said on 19 February after talks in Budapest with his Italian counterpart Franco Frattini that the idea of a "two-speed Europe" is "very negative," and might "lead to the collapse of the EU," AP and Hungarian media reported. Kovacs emphasized, "it is in the very essence of the EU to help the new [member] countries catch up, to diminish differences instead of widening them." The so-called "two-speed Europe" French-German concept emerged after failure to reach agreement on the planned EU constitution. France and Germany suggested that a group of EU members might move ahead towards closer integration, with the other group to follow at a later stage. Frattini agreed with Kovacs, saying, "The two-speed Europe makes no sense" and that "Europe must be built by all." But Frattini also emphasized that an agreement on the planned EU constitution needs to be reached quickly. Both ministers called for stronger trans-Atlantic ties and Frattini added that those ties should also be extended to the Mediterranean basin. MS

HUNGARIAN SOCIALISTS FAIL TO PERSUADE ON JOINT LISTS FOR EUROPARLIAMENT ELECTIONS
Socialist Party Chairman Laszlo Kovacs on 19 February failed to convince the leaders of the coalition partner Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and the opposition Democratic Forum (MDF) to accept Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's recent proposal that the four parliamentary parties draw a joint list of candidates for June's European Parliament elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 February 2004). Kovacs argued that a joint list would challenge neither the European Union's legislation, nor the Hungarian democracy, as non-parliamentary parties would be able to field their own candidates on separate lists, the MTI news agency reported. SZDSZ Chairman Gabor Kuncze reiterated his party's stance, saying they will run their own candidates. For her part, MDF Chairwoman Ibolya David said, "I know more now, but my position has not changed. [The joint list] will not work either politically or legally," the agency reported. Viktor Orban, chairman of the major opposition party FIDESZ, was abroad and did not attend the meeting. Kovacs announced that consultations on the subject will resume next week. MSZ

HAS TILOS RADIO CASE SEEN THE END?
The Budapest Prosecutor-General's Office announced on 19 February that it has concluded the controversial remark made by a Tilos radio announcer on Christmas Eve does not amount to "incitement against a community" and proposed that the case be closed, "Nepszabadsag" and "Nepszava" reported. Announcer Zoltan Bajtai, whose broadcast name is "Barango," said on the air that he would like to "exterminate all Christians." Although he was immediately dismissed, the remark unleashed a fury of protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January, 12 and 13 February 2004). MS

SERBIAN PARTIES SIGN COALITION AGREEMENT
On 19 February, Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), the G-17 Plus party, and the New Serbia party signed a coalition agreement to form a minority government, Tanjug reported. The Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) is expected to sign the agreement on 20 February. Ivica Dacic, who heads the parliamentary group of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), said his party will hold talks about supporting the government even though he has not seen the text of the coalition agreement. UB

MONTENEGRIN PREMIER WARNS BELGRADE
Montenegro's Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said on 18 February that any new Serbian government should be committed to the Belgrade agreement, which established the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. In the agreement, Montenegro and Serbia agreed to remain in the state union for a minimum of three years, before they can split. Djukanovic did not rule out that the governments in Belgrade and Podgorica might agree that referendums on the independence of the two states could be held before 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2002 and 31 July 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 October 2003). UB

AUSTRIAN CHANCELLOR PLEDGES SUPPORT FOR CROATIAN EU-MEMBERSHIP BID
Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel told visiting Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader in Vienna on 19 February that his country will support Croatia's bid for EU membership, Hina reported. Schuessel said the Austrian parliament was the first to ratify Croatia's Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, adding that Austria will support all Croatian efforts for full EU membership. He also said, however, that Croatia will have to fulfill a number of unspecified conditions if it wants to join the EU as soon as possible. Sanader said Croatia hopes to join the EU in 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 January 2004). UB

SFOR RAIDS REPUBLIKA SRPSKA TELECOM AND POST BUILDINGS SEEKING WAR CRIMINALS
In Pale on 19 February, SFOR troops searched the offices of the Telekom Srpska, the Srpska Posta, and a radio station in connection with the hunt for the indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Karadzic's daughter, Sonja, owns the radio station. An SFOR spokesman said the troops confiscated documents that could be helpful in finding the war criminals. UB

KOSOVARS PROTEST ARREST OF FORMER GUERILLAS
More than 1,000 people took to the streets in Prizren on 19 February to protest the 16 February arrest by UN police of four former Kosovar Liberation Army (UCK) fighters, Tanjug reported. The four men, who are now members of the civilian Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), are charged with having committed serious crimes, including the murders of fellow ethnic Albanians suspected of collaborating with Serbian forces during the 1998-99 conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). UB

MACEDONIAN ALBANIAN PARTY ANNOUNCES STREET PROTEST AGAINST REDISTRICTING PLANS
The opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) was scheduled to hold a demonstration in Skopje on 20 February to protest government plans to increase the number and redraw the borders of administrative districts in the Macedonian capital, the BBC's Macedonian service reported. A PDSH spokeswoman said the redistricting would reduce the percentage of Albanians in all but one of the new districts below 20 percent. According to the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement, the Albanian language is an official language in those districts where Albanians make up more than 20 percent of the population. The opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD) also criticized the plan because they believe it shows the Macedonians do not trust the Skopje Albanians, as no important government building will be placed in the districts densely populated by Albanians. Teuta Arifi of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) defended the redistricting plan, stressing that it would create one district in Skopje with an Albanian majority of more than 50 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 February 2003). UB

ROMANIA IS SLAMMED BY EUROPARLIAMENT COMMITTEE...
The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on 19 February stopped short of recommending the suspension of accession negotiations with Romania, but issued a stern warning that Bucharest must speed up democratic reforms to stand any chance of meeting the 2007 accession target, AP and Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23, 26 and 28 January, 2, 4, 5, 9 and 10 February 2004). The committee's draft resolution is to be submitted to the Europarliament's plenum for debate in March. The draft report says "Romania faces serious difficulties fulfilling the [membership] requirements...and becoming a member in 2007 is impossible unless Romania fully implements" further reforms. The draft says Bucharest must do more to fight corruption, end political interference with the justice system, ensure media freedom and prevent police brutality. The draft also expresses concern over the apparent continuation of international adoption of Romanian children, on which a moratorium was imposed on 2001. Europarliament rapporteur for Romania Baroness Emma Nicholson said: "If Romania is serious about EU membership...the trade in children must stop completely." MS

...PROMPTING WIDELY DIFFERENT DOMESTIC REACTIONS
Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana called the decision of the Europarliament's committee a "sort of early warning," Mediafax reported. Geoana said the government will have to "seriously take into consideration" the committee's proposed resolution. On the other hand, European Integration Minister Alexandru Farcas said the draft resolution is tantamount to a "vote of confidence" in Romania. Chief negotiator with the EU Vasile Puscas said the main conclusion derived from the report is that Romania remains a candidate for 2007 accession and that many committee members believe it is more useful and constructive to help Romania in its accession efforts than to suspend accession negotiations. Justice Minister Rodica Stanoiu said many problems criticized in the draft resolution have already been solved or are about to be solved. The opposition National Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance demanded the immediate resignation of the cabinet headed by Adrian Nastase. MS

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT LIFTS PPCD LEADER'S IMMUNITY
Parliament on 19 February lifted Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca's parliamentary immunity, Flux reported. Rosca's immunity was lifted at the request of Prosecutor-General Valeriu Balaban. Earlier this month, the legislature lifted the immunity of Rosca's two deputies, Vlad Cubreacov and Stefan Secareanu, as well as of PPCD lawmaker Valentin Chilat. They are to be charged with having participated in unauthorized protest rallies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2003). It is the eighth time that Rosca has lost his political immunity since the Party of Moldovan Communists won the elections in 2001. Parliament also lifted on 19 February the political immunity of PPCD deputy Nicolae Malache, who is suspected of involvement in the illegal privatization of a Moldovan state-owned seaside resort in Zatoka, near Odessa. MS

COUNCIL OF EUROPE REPRESENTATIVE IN MOLDOVA 'CONCERNED' ABOUT POLITICAL CLIMATE
Vladimir Filipov, who is the permanent representative in Moldova of the Council of Europe's secretary-general, said on 19 February in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova service that the current political climate in Moldova is "worrying." Filipov said he is particularly concerned by the "lack of a political dialogue between power and the opposition" and by repeated infringement on the part of the government of international norms, such as lifting opponents' parliamentary immunity. Filipov also expressed concern in the face of "an absence of freedom of expression" and questionable governmental decisions concerning journalists and their work. He cited the suspending of broadcasting licenses of Chisinau-based Antena C and Euro-TV, and the firing of staff members at Teleradio Moldova under the pretext of reorganization. MS

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT SAYS BULGARIAN ACCESSION PROGRESS WELL UNDER WAY...
Bulgaria's EU membership negotiations are proceeding on schedule without any major problems and could be concluded early in 2004, the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee said on 19 February, according to the official parliamentary website (http://www.europarl.eu.int). When adopting a report by British parliamentarian Geoffrey van Orden, the committee members said Bulgaria's EU membership should not necessarily be linked to that of any other candidate country. This was much to the relief of Bulgarian officials fearing that any delay in the accession progress of neighboring Romania could lead to a postponement of Bulgaria's EU entry (see item above and "RFE/RL Newsline," 9, 10, and 11 February 2004). The committee welcomed Bulgaria's efforts towards constitutional and judicial reform as well as improvements in the protection of children. Politicians in Sofia were also relieved by the fact that the committee urged the European Commission and the European Council to show greater flexibility as regards the closing down of the older blocks of the nuclear-power plant in Kozloduy. UB

...AND SETS AGENDA
During its 19 February session, the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee also said Bulgaria must address a number of legal and social issues. The committee members said more systematic measures against fraud and bribery are necessary, as is more progress in enforcing anticorruption measures. They urged Bulgaria to take more effective measures against human trafficking; to improve the legal aid system; to abolish the requirement for EU nationals to have a permanent residence permit if they want to work in Bulgaria; and to review the law on religious communities with regards to its compatibility with international conventions on fundamental freedoms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March, 11 June, and 17 December 2003). The committee also encouraged both Bulgarian authorities and representatives of the Romany minority to improve the integration of Roma into Bulgarian society. UB

OPEC SUPPLY CUTS COULD HURT GLOBAL ECONOMY IN LONG RUN
Citing a looming seasonal fall in demand for its oil, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) voted on 10 February for yet another surprise cut in supplies effective 1 April, saying the preemptive measure to remove 1 million barrels per day from the market is needed to ensure high revenues for exporters. The decision, which was made at the 129th (Extraordinary) Meeting of the OPEC Conference in Algiers, triggered a new price rally and prompted the United States, the world's largest energy consumer, to call on OPEC to exercise caution at a time of a fragile global economic recovery.

OPEC powerhouse Saudi Arabia played the key part in the decision to reduce the organization's overall ceiling to 23.5 million barrels per day as of April and said it is determined to bring into line those unnamed fellow OPEC members that have been exceeding their quotas in recent months, collectively selling an additional 1.5 million bpd in order to take advantage of high prices. Saudi Arabia, which dictates OPEC policy, said remedial action is needed to prevent a price crash in the spring, when global demand for crude oil falls with the approach of warmer weather in the Northern Hemisphere.

The United States voiced dismay amid concerns that dearer crude prices could derail a nascent global economic recovery. "It is our hope that producers do not take actions that undermine the American economy...and American consumers," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

But there are increasing signs that OPEC is unlikely to heed the U.S. advice, as its 11 members seek to cash in on a buoyant market thirsty for more supplies. OPEC says the curb on supplies is justified, given predictions from the International Energy Agency that demand for oil will lag world supplies in the second quarter by as much as 4 million barrels per day. Higher prices are also needed to help cushion the impact of the falling U.S. currency, in which crude oil is priced.

"Of particular concern to us, as oil-producing developing countries, is the falling value of the U.S. dollar against other leading currencies," the conference president, Indonesian Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, said in his 10 February opening address. "This can have serious budgetary repercussions, because it reduces the purchasing power of our petroleum revenue and affects the ability of our member countries to develop their domestic economies and to invest in additional petroleum production capacities."

"While oil producers cannot take direct measures to support the dollar, we can at least minimize the impact of its decline by ensuring that oil prices remain at reasonable levels," Yusgiantoro said. "This requires the support and cooperation of all oil producers -- OPEC and non-OPEC -- so that the necessary remedial measures can be taken whenever prices come under pressure, in a broad-based, timely, and effective manner."

Members, seeking to prevent prices from going through the roof, indicated they will move to reverse their decision next month if prices keep overshooting the group's preferred $22-$28 per barrel target. United Arab Emirates Oil Minister Obeid Saif al-Nasseri said ministers will review oil demand and prices in Vienna on 31 March at their next Ordinary Meeting. "If the prices are too high and there is demand in the market, we will reverse the decision," he said.

Analysts, however, are skeptical of OPEC's resolve to really turn down the spigots while prices remain at the current strong levels. The group is already producing between 1.5 million and 1.8 million barrels per day above its official current combined ceiling of 24.5 million barrels per day.

"It's a clever move by OPEC, giving the market some support before the second quarter," said Oystein Berentsen, head of crude trade at Norway's Statoil. "But given the amount they are leaking people will want to see how much of the cut they implement. There's a question mark over their credibility."

In fact, despite widespread quota busting, Saudi Arabia has made no credible effort to impose discipline on the group because low inventories in consuming countries have propped up the crude market to its satisfaction.

But what pleases OPEC is bad news for consumers and especially for those whose currencies are pegged to the U.S. dollar. High prices also dig a deep hole in the pocket of ordinary people whose spending power is vital to the health of the world economy. In the key U.S. market, a combination of robust crude-oil prices and low gasoline inventories have paved the way for volatile gasoline prices. In past years, this combination has caused prices to soar above $2 a gallon in some areas. Further increases in the price of oil, which plays a central global economic role, and gasoline, which is essential to the U.S. economy, would come at a delicate time for an economic recovery that has yet to take roots.

High prices therefore pose a threat to the U.S. economy and that of the world at large. A derailment of the global economy could in the long run have serious consequences for OPEC by reducing demand for oil and encouraging the use of alternative sources of energy. For now though, by opting to rein in production at a time of low global oil stockpiles, OPEC has once again demonstrated its prime objective is to increase its revenues at the expense of the users of its only precious commodity, which is crude oil.

Yet OPEC is not the only beneficiary of higher oil prices. Its tight leash on the oil market has encouraged nonmembers such as Russia and Angola to press ahead with major development plans and ramp up output. In fact, both countries regularly send observer delegations to OPEC meetings. Russia has in the past moved to rein in output at OPEC's request to prop up the crude market. Higher prices have, therefore, encouraged exploration in Russia where production costs are higher than in the Persian Gulf.

Russia's output is booming for the fifth consecutive year. It increased by a staggering 800,000 barrels per day last year, and it has risen 50 percent since 1999 to just below 9 million barrels per day in January 2004. Simon Kukes, the chief of the largest Russian oil firm Yukos, is confident the country will become the world's leading oil producer, churning out 10.5 million to 11 million barrels per day by 2009. Russian oil output levels already challenge the 8 million to 8.5 million barrels per day pumped by Saudi Arabia. Moscow's rising power as a major oil producer has served to bring it closer to OPEC since the quest for higher prices requires a common stance vis-a-vis the consumers.

Nassir Shirkhani is an oil-industry analyst who attended the OPEC conference in Algiers.

AFGHAN LEADER SIGNS GENERAL ELECTION PROCEDURES...
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai on 18 February signed off on the procedure for the general elections, Radio Afghanistan reported the next day. Based on the procedures, an Electoral Secretariat will soon begin its work, which the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) will monitor. The procedures also outline the responsibilities of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Afghan Transitional Administration within the JEMB. AT

...AS MILLIONTH AFGHAN VOTER REGISTERS
In Kabul on 18 February an Afghan woman named Fereshta become the millionth voter to register for the upcoming presidential elections, Afghanistan Television reported. Ghotai Khawray, a member of the JEMB said voter registration will begin in areas outside of the capital on 30 April. General elections in Afghanistan are slated for June (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004). One million voters represents less than 10 percent of Afghanistan's estimated 10.5 million eligible voters. AT

UN SAYS TIMING FOR ELECTIONS STILL IN DOUBT...
In his first press conference since becoming the new UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, Jean Arnault (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2004) said on 18 February "it is extremely difficult to put a date" on the elections, the UN Assistance Mission (UNAMA) announced in a press release (http://www.unama-afg.org). Arnault cited security as a major hurdle in completing voter registration on time. "It is absolutely critical that irrespective of whatever side of the Hindu Kush [mountain range that divides Afghanistan] you find yourself, you will be able to register under the same condition," Arnault said. Whether the JEMB would be able to ensure a balanced voters' registration is not certain, Arnault conceded. Another problem cited by Arnault is political freedom, which he linked to the disarming of local commanders. Afghans must feel that the elections are credible "and not just a ratification of those in power at the local level," he said. AT

...AND IS CRITICIZED BY U.S. ENVOY TO AFGHANISTAN
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on 18 February criticized the UN for lagging in its preparations for voter registration, the "Financial Times" reported the next day. "Some people will not be registered in time for June. Registration has been slow because of the limited number of voting stations. This shows poor planning on the part of the UN," Khalilzad said. Arnault said on 18 February that the JEMB will set up 4,200 registration and polling stations throughout Afghanistan's 32 provinces from 1-25 May, UNAMA announced. If "work is done properly in the next six weeks Afghans will indeed be able to register," Arnault added. Security for the 4,200 stations remains a concern, however. Arnault said UNAMA expects that "international forces will step up to the plate." NATO has hinted at enlarging its commitment to Afghanistan in support of the election process; however, the existing NATO missions in Kabul and Konduz remain understaffed and under-equipped (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004). AT

RUSSIAN LEADER SAYS SOVIET VETERANS OF AFGHAN WAR HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF
Russian President Vladimir Putin on 19 February commemorated the 15th anniversary of the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 2 January 2003 and 19 February 2004), Russia's ORT television reported. "Time has come to stop all sort of political fuss around events that took place in Afghanistan," and review those events in an unbiased manner, Putin said. He added that those who fought in Afghanistan have nothing "to be ashamed of." The number of Soviet dead has been estimated at 15,000, while it is estimated that between 1 million and 1.5 million Afghans perished. AT

IRANIANS HEAD TO POLLS IN CONTROVERSIAL ELECTIONS...
Voting began in Iran on 20 February to elect 290 members to parliament, international media reported. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast his ballot early in Tehran, saying: "I am happy because...I fulfilled my duty and...because every citizen has the right to vote in the parliamentary election and I also had this right." Khamenei and other hard-liners are hoping for a respectable turnout in the controversial elections in which nearly 2,500 prospective candidates were disqualified by the conservative Guardians Council from running in the election. As of 10 February, 5,625 of the 8,164 applicants were registered as candidates. Due to the mass disqualification, mostly of possible reformist candidates, many voters reportedly decided not to participate in the election, including 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Some 46 million people are eligible to vote and one must only be 15 years of age to be eligible. PB

...AS IRANIAN PRESIDENT HOPES FOR 'SURPRISE' RESULT
Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami called on 20 February for voters to take part in the parliamentary elections to create a "surprise" result, Reuters reported. "What is important now is that people participate in the elections," Khatami said. "If there is a high turnout, despite all the predictions and propaganda, once again people can bring about a surprise." Khatami is referring to most observers' expectations that conservatives will win a majority in parliament, mainly due to the nonparticipation of the reformist candidates. The daily "Mardom Salari" reported that conservatives face no real competition in 202 constituencies. Hard-line Ayatollah Ahmad Janati said at Friday prayers on election day that "voting is as important as praying." Supreme Leader Khamenei said anyone who tells people to boycott the elections is an "enemy" of the Islamic republic. PB

IRAN RAILWAYS EXPERT QUESTIONS DECISION TO TRANSPORT SULFUR BY RAIL
A report in the reformist daily "Tehran Etemad" quoted an unidentified railways expert as saying that "as a general principle, carrying explosive materials by railway is not recommended." On 18 February, at least 220 people were killed and hundreds wounded when 51 runaway rail cars loaded with cotton, fertilizer, sulfur, and gasoline exploded at Khayyam, near Nishapur in northeastern Iran. In particular, the expert said, carrying sulfur on trains "may be done only in special circumstances, by applying specific measures and fully observing standards." The expert said that the authorities should investigate why halting methods weren't used. LA

UN SAYS IRAQ ELECTIONS CAN'T BE HELD BY 30 JUNE...
UN Secretary General Kofi Annasn told reporters at UN headquarters in New York on 19 February that national direct elections cannot be held in Iraq before the 30 June deadline for the transfer of power, the UN website (http://www.un.org) reported on the same day. Annan's comments came after he briefed 46 delegations comprising the so-called "group of friends on Iraq" on the UN elections assessment team's recent trip to Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 12 February 2004). "We hope that as we move forward we will be able to work with the Iraqis and the Coalition to find a mechanism for establishing a caretaker or an interim government until such time that elections are organized. But we shared with them our sense of the emerging consensus or understanding that elections cannot be held before the end of June, that the June 30th date for handover of sovereignty must be respected, and that we need to find a mechanism to create a caretaker government and then help prepare the elections later, some time later in the future," Annan said. KR

...AS UN ENVOY DESCRIBES NEXT STEPS
UN Envoy to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi told the same group of reporters at the UN on 19 February that Secretary General Annan will send sending his recommendations to the Iraqi Governing Council and to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq "on the basis of the facts that we have assembled" in order to forge a plan on how to proceed toward elections. "The United Nations will be resuming its work to help the political process, first of all up to the 30th of June and then after the 30th of June when sovereignty will be restored to Iraq," Brahimi said. "When elections take place, all Iraqis from the South, the North and in the middle, all Iraqis must participate," he added, in a possible move to dispel rumors that partial elections might take place in Iraq. KR

IRAQI SUNNI LEADER SAYS SECTARIAN ISSUES THREATEN IRAQ
Abd al-Jalil al-Mahdawi, a member of the Muslim Ulama Commission in Iraq, told LBC satellite television on 19 February that sectarian strife is becoming a real threat to Iraqi stability. "Iraq is facing various [threats], including security and sectarian threats. The people are not safe. The people have started to gather along sectarian lines. The ethnic and sectarian divisions threaten to fragment the country into small parts," he said. He added that economic "threats" -- such as 6 million jobless Iraqis -- might exacerbate the situation if not addressed. Al-Mahdawi's comments came during a conference for Iraqi Sunni tribes sponsored by the Sunni Ulama Grouping in Baghdad. KR

PENTAGON OFFICIAL SAYS IRAQI MAYOR, TWO ICDC PERSONNEL HELD IN CONNECTION TO AL-FALLUJAH RAID
U.S. Pentagon Spokesman Lawrence Di Rita and Deputy Director of the Joint Staff Army Brigadier General David Rodriguez said on 19 February that the mayor of Al-Fallujah and two Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) personnel are being held on suspicion that they were involved in the joint attacks on Iraqi police and ICDC stations in Al-Fallujah on 14 February, Reuters reported on 19 February. Some 27 Iraqis were killed in the attacks and at least 35 people were wounded (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 20 February 2004). "The mayor was suspected, just based on the situation. And the people on the ground determined that they thought he might have something to do with it," Rodriguez told reporters. Di Rita said that the two ICDC officers had been vetted but "were able to slip through somehow," adding that the vetting process for hiring Iraqi military personnel may never "get to the perfect level." KR

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