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Newsline - February 23, 2004


PRESIDENT LAUDS THE MILITARY ON ITS HOLIDAY...
President Vladimir Putin said on 22 February during a Kremlin ceremony marking Defenders of the Fatherland Day, which falls on 23 February, that Russia "has no -- and cannot have any -- aggressive goals or imperial ambitions," ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti reported. He said Russia's armed forces, including its strategic forces, are being strengthened and modernized to ensure the country's "reliable defense," and they must be prepared to ward off any threat, ranging from terrorism to large-scale aggression. "Our army and fleet must correspond to modern demands, must be mobile, genuinely professional, and equipped with new-generation weapons and technology," Putin said. The army is experiencing "the same difficulties as society in general," but "these difficulties are thrown into sharper relief in the military," he added. Putin congratulated Russia's service personnel and their families on the occasion of the holiday, saying Russia "is proud of its soldiers, who have not only protected their own country, but on more than one occasion have saved the world from aggressors." He also predicted the current generation of service personnel will preserve "the glorious historical traditions of our army." JB

...WHILE POLLS SUGGEST THE MILITARY IS NOT HELD IN HIGH ESTEEM
In a poll taken among 1,600 Russians by sociologist Yurii Levada's analytical service, 77 percent of respondents said they would not want their son, brother, husband, or other close relative to serve in the military, while 20 percent said they have nothing against military service, newsru.com reported on 22 February. According to Levada's agency, a poll in 1998 found that 84 percent did not want relatives to serve in the military, while 13 percent were not against it. In the recent Levada poll, 42 percent cited hazing and violence by fellow soldiers as the reason they oppose relatives joining the military, while another 42 percent cited possible injury or death in combat. Similarly, 49 percent of 1,600 Russians surveyed by the Public Opinion Foundation said they view the army negatively, while 28 percent said they view it positively, and 15 percent were neutral, newsru.com reported. According to the foundation, those who were negative about the military tended to be younger than 35, to live in Moscow, and to support Yabloko or the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS). JB

PRESIDENTIAL AIDE COMPLAINS ABOUT EXILES IN BRITAIN...
President Putin's foreign-policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said in an interview published on 22 February in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" that there is "a serious issue around certain persons who are regarded by the British judicial system as political refugees seeking asylum, whereas the Russian Federation regards them as criminals." Prikhodko was apparently referring to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's representative Akhmed Zakaev and exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii, both of whom have been granted political asylum in Britain, although he did not refer to them by name. Asked specifically about Berezovskii, Prikhodko said: "If London really enjoys the inflow of certain specific elements from all parts of the world, then that is its decision. You may collect them in London if you want, and I'm sure Britain may feel much safer. You may even spend your taxpayers' money on them if you don't have any other issues." Berezovskii, a vocal critic of President Putin, claimed in an interview with the BBC's World Service on 12 February that three attempts have been made on his life since he has been in London. JB

...WHILE EXPRESSING DISPLEASURE WITH OTHER POLICIES
In his 22 February interview with "The Daily Telegraph," Kremlin foreign-policy adviser Prikhodko took potshots at the invasion of Iraq and at the Baltic states' impending membership of the European Union. "It started with a search for weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist," he said of the U.S.-led coalition's military campaign against the regime of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, "and now we have ended up fighting against international terrorism, which was not present in Iraq before the war." He also invited Britain to accept "our condolences" for the fact that Latvia and Lithuania are among the 10 countries set to join the European Union on 1 May. "Now the hard-headed Lithuanian nationalists are your problem and not ours," Prikhodko said. "Now, you will have to tell them in Latvia that closing schools lies way outside all laws, all regulations, all norms. That will be your task now, not ours. They are hard partners for dialogue." JB

DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS ELECTIONS IMPOSSIBLE WHILE IRAQ IS OCCUPIED
Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov said on 21 February that while Russia believes there must be national elections in Iraq, it is "very hard to imagine" how these elections could be prepared as long as Iraq is occupied, Interfax reported. Characterizing as "notorious" an agreement signed in November between the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council on a gradual handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi people, Fedotov said Russia has warned that the plan is not viable because it amounts to "an attempt at a behind-the-scenes settlement in Iraq, without the broad participation of the international community." He said the United Nations must take the lead in preparing and holding elections in Iraq, but that this can happen only "once Iraq is no longer under occupation and is sovereign again." Fedotov's comments followed those of Iraq's U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, who said in an interview aired by the Arabic-language television channel Al-Arabiyah on 21 February that elections cannot be held in Iraq for 12 to 15 months for "technical" reasons. JB

PROSECUTOR INVESTIGATING RYBKIN CASE
The Prosecutor-General's Office has launched a criminal investigation into presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin's claim that he was drugged and held against his will in Kyiv earlier this month, Russian media reported on 20 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). Rybkin's campaign manager, Ksenia Ponomareva, told Interfax that she was questioned on 20 February by prosecutors for four hours in connection with the case. Speaking from London, Rybkin told Interfax that he told investigators that he would be happy to talk to them in London. Ponomareva said earlier that she thinks the Central Election Commission (TsIK) might try to exclude Rybkin from the ballot "through the courts," "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 20 February. JAC

ELECTION COMMISSION SAYS FEDERAL CHANNELS JUST DOING THEIR JOB
The TsIK rejected on 20 February complaints by presidential candidates Irina Khakamada and Nikolai Kharitonov about television and radio coverage of President Putin's 12 February speech to his election agents, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). The commission ruled that the programming reflected the public interest and that the stations were only informing the electorate, not campaigning, RIA-Novosti reported. According to the TsIK, state-controlled ORT and RTR said they will provide equal news coverage of all presidential candidates for the remainder of the campaign for the 14 March election. The TsIK decision noted that Putin's speech was given more airtime than is usually given to reports of campaign events, and that under certain conditions, "the presentation of election-campaign events of this candidate may be viewed as favoritism," ITAR-TASS reported. ORT and RTR aired Putin's 29-minute speech live. JAC

PATRIARCH COMPLAINS TO TOP VATICAN OFFICIAL ABOUT CATHOLIC PROSELYTIZING
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II met in Moscow on 22 February with papal envoy Cardinal Walter Kasper, Russian media reported. Kasper is the most senior Vatican official to visit Russia in the last four years, the BBC reported. According to polit.ru, during the talks, the patriarch complained that the Vatican has apparently forgotten an earlier agreement that the Catholic Church would inform Orthodox officials in advance when new Catholic structures are to be established on the territory of the Russian Orthodox Church. The patriarch gave Cardinal Kasper a package of letters from Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast complaining about the construction of a Catholic monastery in the region, where the number of Catholics is reportedly no more than a few dozen, RTR and Interfax reported. The two church officials agreed to set up a joint working group to improve relations between the two churches, the BBC reported. Kasper told Vatican Radio that the working group will examine the patriarch's complaints. JAC

PUTIN PROPOSES PUTTING MERGER OF REGIONS ON THE FAST TRACK...
President Putin has submitted to the State Duma a high-priority bill on the merger of Perm Oblast with Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug into a region to be called Perm Krai, Interfax and NTV reported on 20 February, citing the presidential press service. The bill establishes a schedule for the formation of Perm Krai and the establishment of administrative structures for the new region, a transitional budget, and arbitration courts. State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said the Duma could approve the bill as early as next month, according to NTV. Residents of Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug approved the merger in referendums on 7 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). The term of Perm Oblast Governor Yurii Tretnev expires in 2005, according to regions.ru on 11 December. JAC

...AS CHELYABINSK POLITICIANS DISCUSS MERGER WITH SVERDLOVSK, KURGAN OBLASTS
Chelyabinsk Mayor Vyacheslav Tarasov has started discussions with representatives of the oblast administration about a proposal by Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel to merge Kurgan, Chelyabinsk, and Sverdlovsk oblasts, regions.ru reported on 19 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2003). According to the website, negotiations about the possible merger are part of an ongoing bargaining process between Tarasov and Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Petr Sumin concerning the mayoral election in Chelyabinsk this December. Politicians in the oblast are reportedly pleased at the ongoing struggle between Sumin and Tarasov, and hope it will create the proper setting for facilitating the merger. JAC

DUMA TO MULL EXPANDING FSB'S POWERS...
Speaking on 21 February during a meeting with senior Duma officials on the 10th anniversary of the Russian parliament, President Putin put forth several near-term goals for the lower legislature, ITAR-TASS reported. He called on the Duma to "thoroughly review the entire body of anticorruption legislation for quality, completeness, and areas of conflict." According to "Izvestiya" on 20 February, the Duma's Security Committee is preparing amendments to the laws on the Federal Security Service (FSB) and on external intelligence that would expand the powers of the special services in order to combat terrorism. Deputies are also considering widening the powers of prosecutors to arrest people detained in the context of counterterrorism operations. On 19 February, members of the Moscow Helsinki Group and other human rights organizations express their opposition to proposed amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code that would ban jury trials for all cases involving state secrets, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 20 February. JAC

...AS UNIFIED RUSSIA FACTION ALREADY SHOWING SIGNS OF DISHARMONY
The Unified Russia and Motherland factions are opposed to a bill to amend the law on the mass media that would prohibit reports about terrorist attacks that have not been cleared in advance by law enforcement agencies, Interfax reported. The bill, which was proposed by Deputy Mikhail Yurevich (Unified Russia), is supported by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) faction. The agency did not report on how the factions view a second bill, which would amend the law on the mass media to prohibit the showing of victims of terrorism on television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). An unidentified member of the Duma's Information Policy Committee told gazeta.ru on 20 February that Yurevich's bill is likely to be rejected by the committee. The source also commented that it was odd that two conflicting pieces of legislation were proposed by members of Unified Russia, since there is supposed to be "unanimity of opinion" within the faction. According to "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 20 February, 222 members of the 306-member Unified Russia faction are also members of the Unified Russia party. JAC

NATO CONDEMNS KILLING OF ARMENIAN OFFICER
NATO officials on 20 February issued a strong condemnation of the slaying by an Azerbaijani serviceman of an Armenian military officer attending a NATO training course in Hungary, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Turan reported. Characterizing the incident as a "clear criminal act," the NATO statement added that it hopes the "tragic incident" will not affect Armenia's "strong participation" in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. Although the official Azerbaijani response to the killing expressed "regret" at the death of Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian, it nevertheless blamed the victim for provoking the incident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 February 2004). The assailant, Lieutenant Ramil Safarov, also attempted to attack a second Armenian officer, but was repulsed by Lithuanian Army Major Saulius Paliulis. RG

ARMENIAN UNIVERSITY STUDENTS CONTINUE BOYCOTT TO PROTEST MILITARY DRAFT
Several hundred Armenian university students continued their boycott of classes for a second day on 20 February, protesting a government plan to abolish existing military-service exemptions and deferments, according to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau. A demonstration of more than 1,000 students at the Yerevan State University was also held on 20 February in support of the boycott. The Armenian government approved a new law on compulsory military service last month that only allows students to enroll in graduate studies after they complete their mandatory service in the country's armed forces. Defense Ministry officials defended the law as the most effective way to combat widespread corruption within the graduate-admissions program. RG

ARMENIA PLEDGES TO UPGRADE SECURITY OF NUCLEAR-POWER PLANT
Armenian officials pledged on 20 February to spend $60 million to upgrade security at the country's sole nuclear-power plant by 2008, Interfax reported. The funds will reportedly be supplemented by additional funding from the international community. The Medzamor nuclear facility, which provides about 40 percent of the country's total energy needs, is managed by Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES) under the terms of a February 2003 agreement. The facility was commissioned in 1975, but was closed in early 1989 after environmental concerns were raised in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Armenia in December 1988. It was reopened in 1995 with Russian assistance in response to a serious energy crisis stemming from the blockade of the country by Azerbaijan and Turkey. RG

AZERBAIJAN SIGNS MILITARY-COOPERATION AGREEMENT WITH RUSSIA
The defense ministers of Russia and Azerbaijan formally signed an agreement on 19 February establishing a new program of bilateral military cooperation, the "Baku Sun" reported. Under the agreement, which comes in the wake of discussions during Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's recent visit to Moscow, Russia will supply Azerbaijan with sorely needed spare parts for its military and will expand training for Azerbaijani officers at Russian military academies and institutions. The agreement marks a shift in Azerbaijan's policy of recent years to seek greater integration with NATO, and is the latest element in Azerbaijan's expanding relationship with Russia. RG

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT ARRIVES IN WASHINGTON
An official Georgian delegation led by President Mikheil Saakashvili arrived in Washington early on 23 February, beginning a five-day visit to the United States, Civil Georgia and the "Georgian Times" reported. In addition to meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House on 25 February, Saakashvili is scheduled to hold meetings with senior administration officials, the FBI, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Saakashvili hopes to expand his country's cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism and nonproliferation efforts in the Transcaucasus and to secure new assistance that has been promised to bolster the weakening Georgian economy. RG

CLASHES IN ADJARIA MAR VISIT OF COUNCIL OF EUROPE OFFICIAL...
Open street fighting broke out in the southwestern Georgian region of Adjaria on 20 February, marring the visit of Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer, AP and Rustavi-2 television reported. The clashes between supporters and opponents of Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze erupted in front of the offices of the Nasha Achara opposition party in Batumi. RG

...AND TRIGGER GEORGIAN RESPONSE
In a statement in response to the clash, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili accused the Adjar government of "quite openly organizing a confrontation between citizens in spite of the visit by Mr. Schwimmer," according to AP. The Georgian authorities appealed to Adjar leader Abashidze to put an end to such clashes, and warned that "civil conflict will be punished strictly by the law." Tbilisi dispatched a joint force from the Ministry of State Security and the Interior Ministry to Batumi late on 20 February to investigate the incidents. Abashidze, a vocal opponent of President Saakashvili, has been subjected to mounting internal pressure from a newly emerging Adjar civil society in recent weeks. RG

GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTER EXPLAINS REFORM PLAN
Georgia's newly appointed Defense Minister, Gela Bezhuashvili, detailed his plans to reform the country's armed forces on 20 February, Civil Georgia reported. Bezhuashvili announced that he intends to implement broad structural reforms, starting with a reduction in Defense Ministry staff from 500 positions to 200. Additional measures include sweeping changes to the structure and size of the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces, a reduction of the army from 20,000 to 15,000 soldiers, and an effort to persuade the legislature to increase funding and modernize the military. Bezhuashvili, a Western-educated former deputy defense minister, has pledged to implement the government's foreign-policy priority of integrating the armed forces into NATO. RG

KAZAKH FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS COUNTRY'S URANIUM IS SAFE
Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev told a news conference in Almaty on 20 February that Kazakhstan's export-control system makes it impossible to smuggle uranium out of the country, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Toqaev was reacting to recent media reports alleging such smuggling. BB

KAZAKH OPPOSITION MOVEMENT HOLDS FOUNDING CONGRESS
The opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement held its founding congress in Almaty on 21 February, khabar.kz reported. Although only 180 delegates attended the congress, they reportedly represented an additional 1,267 people who submitted letters of proxy, making the total well over the 1,000 people required to validate a party's founding congress. The congress adopted a party program and a charter, both of which will be submitted with other registration documents to the Justice Ministry. The DVK, which was established in late 2002, has made several attempts to register as a public organization, but the ministry has consistently rejected its applications. According to khabar.kz, the DVK is still short of the 50,000 signatures needed to register as a political party. BB

KAZAKH JOURNALISTS' CONGRESS CALLS ON PARLIAMENT NOT TO ADOPT NEW MEDIA LAW
The third congress of journalists of Kazakhstan ended in Atyrau on 20 February with the adoption of an appeal to the parliament not to adopt a controversial draft law on the media that is making its way through the legislative system, khabar.kz reported. The appeal asserted that neither the government drafters of the bill nor the legislators took account of important changes to the draft that were proposed earlier by journalists. The congress called on parliament to retain the current media law and merely to amend it to reflect the current needs of journalists. Congress participants cited examples of government interference with the media. Darigha Nazarbaeva, head of the Khabar media group and daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, was re-elected chairwoman of the congress. BB

KAZAKH PARLIAMENT GIVES SECOND NOD TO REVISED LAW ON ELECTIONS
At its 20 February session, the Kazakh parliament approved in its second reading a series of amendments to existing election legislation, RIA-Novosti and Kazakh media reported. If the changes are adopted, voter lists will have to be finalized and submitted to election commissions at least 20 days prior to an election and may be changed only if a voter's name has been garbled. Local election commissions are to be chosen by local councils from candidates recommended by political parties. The third reading of the changes is scheduled for mid-March. BB

ST. PETERSBURG WANTS TO GET INVOLVED IN ENERGY DEVELOPMENT IN KYRGYZSTAN
A Kyrgyz-Russian business forum was held in Bishkek during the 20 February visit of St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko, Interfax, RIA-Novosti, and Kyrgyz news agencies reported. The visitors from St. Petersburg were reportedly most interested in energy development and in supplying agricultural machinery. Matvienko signed a framework cooperation agreement with Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and noted that her city intends to play a role in the modernization or construction of several Kyrgyz power plants. Tanaev announced that Russia intends to build an aluminum plant in Kyrgyzstan. BB

NUMBER OF SERVICE PERSONNEL AT RUSSIAN AIR BASE IN KYRGYZSTAN TO QUADRUPLE
The commander of Russia's Fifth Airborne Division, General Yevgenii Yurev, was quoted by Interfax on 21 February as saying that by the end of this year, the number of service personnel stationed at the Russian air base at Kant will rise from the current 200 to 800. The number of aircraft stationed at the base is scheduled to be doubled, and in the course of the year runways are to be upgraded to accommodate heavy aircraft. BB

POLISH PRESIDENT STOPS OFF IN UZBEKISTAN FOR TALKS
On 21 February, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski stopped off in Tashkent on his way to Southeast Asia and held brief talks with Uzbek President Islam Karimov at the airport, ITAR-TASS reported. The talks focused on the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as bilateral trade and economic relations. Kwasniewski also expressed particular interest in the Polish minority in Uzbekistan, which numbers about 4,000. BB

MINSK ENGAGES IN VERBAL SPARRING MATCH WITH MOSCOW OVER GAS SUPPLIES...
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh said on 20 February that Minsk is "bewildered" by a statement the Russian Foreign Ministry placed on its official website on 19 February, Belapan reported. The statement came in response to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's accusations earlier the same day that Moscow resorted to "terrorism" by cutting off gas supplies to Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). "The provocative statements made by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 19 February indicate that he is attempting to aggravate relations with Russia, while disregarding the interests of the Belarusian people," the Russian Foreign Ministry stated. "By provoking a crisis over the supply of Russian gas, Alyaksandr Lukashenka is trying to divert criticism from himself and shift responsibility for his own mistakes to Russia," the ministry added. Savinykh called the Russian statement "an apparent attempt to reverse the blame and mislead the public," adding that "the price [of gas] that Gazprom was thrusting on us directly contravened [all Russian-Belarusian interstate] agreements." JM

...AS RUSSIAN OFFICIAL WARNS AGAINST MORE POTENTIAL TROUBLES
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko warned the Belarusian government in Minsk on 20 February that there could be more disruptions in gas deliveries to Belarus if Minsk fails to sign a "full-scale contract" with Gazprom on gas supplies, Belapan reported. "If you want to drink, do you go to the store or just lie in the bed crying that you want to drink?" Khristenko said, characterizing Minsk's position in the current row over gas supplies. Gazprom has not signed any gas-supply contract with Belarus for 2004, pressuring Minsk to accept a higher price and offer favorable conditions in the potential purchase of a controlling stake in Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas-pipeline operator. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT DENIES HE ORDERED SPYING ON OPPOSITION
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder promised Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in Berlin on 20 February that the German government will support Ukraine's efforts to be recognized by the EU as a market economy, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. Kuchma repeated his former pledge that he will not run in this year's presidential election or appoint a successor. "I'm not a tsar like they had in the Russian Empire, and I am not handing my authority over to a successor," he told journalists. Kuchma denied accusations by former Ukrainian intelligence officer Valeriy Kravchenko that he ordered Ukraine's special services to spy on Ukrainian opposition activists abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). Kuchma said his country does not need to spy on opposition figures abroad because anything they say can be read in the press, dpa reported. JM

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION LEADER CALLS ON EU TO ASSIST IN HOLDING FAIR ELECTIONS
Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko on 21 February appealed to the European Union to render Ukraine assistance in conducting transparent and honest presidential elections in 2004, Interfax reported. "[Ukraine's ruling] regime is afraid of only one thing -- the West's reaction to what is taking place in the country," Yushchenko said at the international "Ukraine in Europe and the World" conference in Kyiv. "[The regime] does not react to anything else. There is no freedom any longer, Radio Liberty is being closed, the key opposition channels have already been closed," Yushchenko noted, adding that constitutional reform in Ukraine was initiated with the single purpose of allowing the current authorities to remain in power. JM

THOUSANDS PROTEST ALLEGED TAX INTIMIDATION IN UKRAINIAN CITY
The regional office of the State Tax Administration in Ternopil, western Ukraine, was picketed by 10,000 people protesting what they say is "tax repression" against businesses associated with lawmakers from the Our Ukraine opposition bloc, UNIAN reported, quoting the press service of the Ukrainian Popular Party, a component of Our Ukraine. The rally reportedly demanded that "fabricated criminal cases" against Ternopil-based businesses associated with Popular Party parliamentarians Yaroslav Dzhodzhyk and Oleh Humenyuk be closed and that a team of tax officers, who were dispatched to Ternopil from Kyiv, be recalled. JM

DOCUMENT ON ESTONIA'S DEFENSE DEVELOPMENT SIGNED
Defense Minister Margus Hanson and defense forces commander Vice Admiral Tarmo Kouts signed a document in Tallinn on 20 February outlining the main prerogatives of the country's defense reforms, BNS reported. The 10-point document gives top priority to Estonia's continued integration into NATO, and mentions airspace security and continued participation in international missions as key objectives. It calls for the completion in the first quarter of 2004 of a long-term development plan that will outline the structure of the defense forces and its development for the years 2005-10. The country will also acquire armored personnel carriers, antiaircraft weapons, and other strategically important materiel, according to the document. SG

LATVIAN PRESIDENT NOMINATES GREEN PRIME MINISTER
Vaira Vike-Freiberga announced on 20 February that she had asked Union of Greens and Farmers Chairman Indulis Emsis to form a new government, BNS reported. Emsis, 52, was elected to the Latvian Supreme Council in 1990 and is the current chairman of the parliament's Economy, Agrarian, Environmental, and Regional Development Committee. He also served as environment minister in several cabinets. Emsis held talks on 20 February with representatives of the opposition People's Party and the center-right Latvia's First Party (LPP), whose withdrawal from the coalition resulted in the resignation of the previous cabinet headed by New Era Chairman Einars Repse. Emsis was scheduled to meet on 23 February with representatives of the New Era and For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK. Emsis said he hopes to form a broad right-wing coalition under the motto "Unity for Sustainable Growth." He stressed the need for greater teamwork in the cabinet and vowed never to resort to ultimatums. Emsis had been planning to attend a 20 February congress in Rome aimed at forming a new European Green Party, but remained in Latvia because of his nomination. If approved, he will be the first Green prime minister in Europe. SG

LITHUANIAN SUPREME COURT CHAIRMAN ASKED TO PRESIDE OVER IMPEACHMENT PROCESS
Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas on 20 February invited Vytautas Greicius to preside over the impeachment process against Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas, in accordance with parliamentary statutes, BNS reported. Greicius is expected to decide whether to accept the invitation this week. Paulauskas said he is considering whether the Constitutional Court should be asked to decide whether a person who was elected to an office and who later is shown to have violated his oath of office can run again for the same position. When asked whether the court's decision could block Paksas from running for president again, Paulauskas said that "the opinion of the Constitutional Court would be authoritative and binding for all." There is not enough time to enact a constitutional amendment barring Paksas from running for president again this year in the event he is impeached. SG

POLISH PREMIER TESTIFIES IN RYWINGATE TRIAL
Prime Minister Leszek Miller told the Warsaw District Court on 20 February that he was not involved in the corruption scandal known in Poland as "Rywingate," Polish media reported. Film producer Lew Rywin has been on trial for two months on charges that he solicited a $17.5 million bribe in 2002 from Agora, publisher of the "Gazeta Wyborcza" daily, in return for changes to legislation that would have allowed Agora to buy a television station (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2003). Miller told the court that he did not send Rywin to Agora with the bribery proposal. Miller said that in July 2002, when "Gazeta Wyborcza" Editor in Chief Adam Michnik arranged a meeting with Rywin in the prime minister's office to confront him on the issue, Rywin disclosed that it was former Polish Television chief Robert Kwiatkowski and media expert Andrzej Zalewski who sent him to Agora. JM

CZECH EUROPEAN COMMISSIONER RESIGNS
Milos Kuzvart, who was appointed earlier this month as Czech representative on the European Commission, resigned on 20 February, citing insufficient domestic support, CTK and international news agencies reported. Kuzvart cited a comment Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda reportedly made after European Commission President Romano Prodi approved acceding EU members appointments to the European Commission last week. Svoboda's purported comment that "to push someone through with a party shovel is as much use in the EU as a hole in the head," reportedly came in response to media speculation that Kuzvart, an opponent of Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla in the ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD), owed his appointment to the prime minister's wish to see him leave the domestic political scene. Svoboda denied making the statement and said, "if everyone left when others fail constantly to sing their praises, people would be resigning all the time." The European Commission said Kuzvart's resignation is "regrettable, but we respect his decision," AFP reported. The commission also said Prodi will discuss the situation with Spidla. MS

CZECH PREMIER RETURNS TO WORK AFTER COLLAPSE
Prime Minister Spidla, who briefly lost consciousness on 20 February during a meeting of the CSSD deputies' group, returned to work early in the morning of 23 February, CTK cited a cabinet spokeswoman as saying. Spidla's fainting spell came just moments after Kuzvart announced his resignation as Czech representative on the European Commission. However, Spidla denied that the episode was prompted by Kuzvart's resignation, saying he suffers from low blood pressure and that "once every two years, this happens to me," CTK reported, citing "Mlada fronta Dnes." MES

FORMER ANTICOMMUNIST CZECH DISSIDENT DIES
Jan Ruml, a prominent anticommunist dissident and editor of an illegal newspaper during communist rule, died on 20 February in Prague following a long illness, AFP and AP reported. Ruml, 78, an opponent of the 1969 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and a founding member of Charter 77, was twice jailed under the communist regime and played a key role in the Prague Spring. MS

WELFARE CUTS PROMPT RIOTING BY SLOVAK ROMA...
Approximately 200 Roma looted two food shops in the eastern town of Trhoviste on 21 February to protest cuts in welfare benefits, CTK reported. On 20 February, some 50 Roma looted a food shop in Cierna nad Tisu and rioting also occurred last week in Levoca, Fialakovo, and Michalovce. Police in the Kosice region have detained some 42 Roma for their alleged participation in rioting. Social benefits are to be significantly cut next month, particularly affecting the Romany community that is hard hit by unemployment, while the costs of rent and utilities have risen significantly, TASR reported on 19 February. Ladislav Fizik, chairman of the Romany Parliament organization, on 21 February announced a "strike alert" for "all Slovak citizens depending on social aid," according to CTK. He also called on members of the Romany minority in all towns and villages to assemble for peaceful protests on 25 February. As part of the protest, Roma are being asked not to send their children to school on 25 February. "We don't want to rob and steal," Fizik said. "We only want work." MS

...AS AUTHORITIES SUSPECT MANIPULATION
A spokesman for the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry said the looting of shops is not a sign of the Romany community's desperation, but an organized action prompted by Romany money lenders who "will lose the source of their illegal incomes with the lowering of social benefits" as of 1 March, CTK reported. MS

HUNGARIAN OPPOSITION PARTY REJECTS SOCIALISTS' PROPOSAL, OUTLINES COOPERATION
Viktor Orban, chairman of the major opposition FIDESZ party, on 20 February rejected Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's recent proposal that the four parliamentary parties field a joint list for the European Parliament elections in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 18, and 20 February 2004), Hungarian dailies reported the next day. Orban, who was unable to attend an earlier meeting of party leaders on the issue, said Medgyessy's proposal would divide the public and runs counter to European democratic traditions, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Orban proposed that parliamentary parties reach national consensus on nine points following Hungary's accession to the EU in May. These include EU financial subsidies, the position of Hungarian farmers on agricultural issues, protection of national minorities, delegating officials to EU posts, and cooperation in electing European parliamentary deputies. Former Socialist Prime Minister Gyula Horn on 20 February expressed his pleasure with Orban's suggestions, saying that Medgyessy's proposal had prompted FIDESZ to start thinking, and he outlined his party's own 10-point proposal regarding cooperation among parliamentary parties, Hungarian radio reported. Horn, who is running the Socialist Party's EU election campaign, suggested that the 24 future Hungarian members of the European Parliament meet regularly to discuss EU issues that require national consensus. MSZ

HUNGARIAN PREMIER READY FOR 'SECOND TRY,' BUT PARTY NONCOMMITTAL
In an interview with the daily "Nepszava" on 21 February, Prime Minister Medgyessy said that if the Socialist Party wins the confidence of the electorate in the 2006 elections, he would be prepared to continue as prime minister. Socialist Party Chairman Laszlo Kovacs told the daily "Magyar Hirlap" on 22 February that the party has not yet decided on its prime-ministerial candidate in 2006. He said that he personally sees no reason why Medgyessy should not carry on. However, according to "Magyar Hirlap," the Socialist Party's leadership is not currently considering nominating Medgyessy -- who is not a party member -- for the post. Meanwhile, Medgyessy on 20 February told a Vienna conference organized by the journal "Europaeische Rundschau" that while it should be acknowledged that European integration is proceeding at different speeds, some form of cooperation should exist between those EU members favoring fast-track integration and those opting for a slower pace. The daily "Magyar Nemzet" the next day pointed out that there is a contradiction between the premier's statement and one made by Kovacs on 19 February in which he said "two-speed" EU integration would be harmful (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). MS

HUNGARIAN FREE DEMOCRATS PROPOSE MALE-LED FEMINISM FOR EUROPARLIAMENT ELECTIONS
The Alliance of Free Democrats' (SZDSZ) National Council decided on 21 February that the party's 24-candidate lists for the June elections to the European Parliament will include 22 women, Hungarian media reported. The list, however, is to be headed by two men -- Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky and EU-accession expert Istvan Szent-Ivanyi. The SZDSZ reiterated its opposition to Premier Medgyessy's proposal for cross-party parliamentary formations to present a joint list of candidates for those elections. On 20 February, the party's leadership approved a document called "Liberal Charta 2004" as the party's platform for the elections, and said they will launch a drive to collect supporting signatures. Demszky and SZDSZ Chairman Gabor Kuncze said the party is offering the electorate solutions different from those of the Socialist Party -- its senior coalition partner. The Liberal Charta emphasizes reducing the role of the state, the defense of human rights, and encouraging environmental programs such as recycling. MS

SERBIAN LEADER HINTS AT TOUGH STANCE TOWARD THE HAGUE...
Vojislav Kostunica, who is expected to become Serbian prime minister shortly, said in Belgrade on 21 February that "this country is not a delivery service for human merchandise to The Hague tribunal," London's "The Times" reported. Kostunica stressed his long-standing view that he wants war-crimes suspects to be tried in Serbian courts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 February 2004; and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003, and 9 January and 20 February 2004). The daily added that Carla Del Ponte, who is the Hague-based war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, recently warned that Belgrade's failure to provide the tribunal with the necessary documents might prevent the conviction of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. PM

...AS TOP JUDGE STEPS DOWN
Hague officials announced on 22 February that Richard May, who is the presiding judge at Milosevic's trial, will step down "in three months' time" due to unspecified "health problems," the "International Herald Tribune" reported. It is not clear what effect, if any, May's departure will have on the trial, which has been subject to frequent interruptions because of Milosevic's own allegedly poor health. Speculation has begun that Milosevic might seek to have a mistrial declared on the grounds that the same judge should be present from the beginning of his trial to the end, the BBC reported. PM

SERBIAN PARTY CHOOSES A LEADER
On 22 February, officials of the Democratic Party voted overwhelmingly to elect Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Boris Tadic to succeed the late Zoran Djindjic as party leader, rejecting the candidacy of outgoing Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The Democrats did not fill Djindjic's post after his 12 March assassination in order to avoid an internal power struggle at a politically difficult time for the then-governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition, which the Democratic Party led. Following his election as Djindjic's successor, Tadic repeated his position that the party will not support a minority government backed by Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). Unlike Zivkovic, however, he did not call for the party to go into opposition immediately. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on 21 February that the Democratic Party expects the new Kostunica-led government to be short-lived and wants to present itself to the voters at the next election as the one reformist party untainted by any association with the SPS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 February 2004; and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003, and 9 January and 20 February 2004). PM

BIG PROTEST IN ALBANIAN CAPITAL
About 50,000 protesters took to the streets of Tirana on 21 February to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Fatos Nano despite a ban on public demonstrations, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported. No incidents were reported despite a history of political violence in postcommunist Albania. Opposition leader and former President Sali Berisha denounced Nano's government as the "most corrupt" in Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2004). The daily added that this was the biggest demonstration in Tirana since the ones that brought the Socialists to power in 1997. PM

KOSOVAR MINISTER INJURED IN BLAST
Kosova's Environment and Zoning Minister Ethem Ceku, who belongs to Ramush Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosova's (AAK), and four other people were injured in Peja on 21 February when an explosive device went off in their automobile near a sports hall following a basketball game, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Also wounded were AAK Peja branch leader Ali Berisha, Peja General Hospital director and local AAK official Arzen Bytyqi, and two members of the Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), Hina reported. The AAK said in a statement that the Serbian authorities are responsible for what the party called a terrorist attack. Harry Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), said the incident was a blow to democracy in Kosova. PM

KOSOVA'S PRESIDENT CALLS ON SERBS TO RETURN
Speaking in Peja on 21 February, Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova called on all Serbs who fled their homes as a result of the 1998-99 conflict to return, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. But in Klina, several hundred ethnic Albanians demonstrated to demand that any return of Serbian refugees be linked to solving the cases of Albanians who have been missing since the war. Elsewhere, the leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the province dismissed Rugova's appeal as electioneering. PM

ROMANIAN PREMIER COMMENTS ON EUROPARLIAMENT COMMISSION'S DRAFT...
Prime Minister Adrian Nastase on 20 February said the draft resolution submitted last week by the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee is "constructive," and a governmental communique said the cabinet intends to abide by the committee's recommendation, Romanian Radio and Romanian Television reported. The draft report says Romania will not be able to accede to the EU in 2007 unless it speeds up reform (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). However, in an apparent self-contradiction, Nastase also said the draft resolution can be viewed as an attempt to make Romania's position in the accession talks "more vulnerable." He said EU expansion has created "a certain nervousness in Europe," and as a consequence the organization has become "a lot more demanding." MS

...WHILE GOVERNMENT REJECTS OPPOSITION DEMAND THAT IT STEP DOWN
An official government press release stated on 21 February that the government "will continue fulfilling the mandate with which it was entrusted by the Romanian people." In response to the National Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance's demand that the government resign in the wake of the European Parliament's draft report, the cabinet accused the alliance of attempting to block Romania's accession negotiations. Having failed in that attempt, it said, "a group of bankrupt politicians doomed to be forgotten" stubbornly "defy the Romanians' intelligence and common sense, believing that the three years that passed [since they left the government] are sufficient to make people forget the economic disaster that caused the country a loss of 4 billion euros [$5.07 billion]." MS

ROMANIAN EXTREMIST LEADER DONATES RABIN STATUE
Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor announced on 20 February that the PRM is "donating" the statue it erected last month in Brasov to the city's municipal council, Mediafax reported. The statue was erected illegally, although the council later issued a permit. Tudor said that by donating the statue he has proven that its erection was not driven by any electoral "interests or motivations, and [that] what I do I always do with the noblest and heartfelt intentions" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2004). MS

ETHNIC HUNGARIANS IN ROMANIA CALL FOR REHABILITATION OF NATIONALIST POET
Hundreds of ethnic Hungarians in Romania gathered on 22 February in different Transylvanian towns, calling for the rehabilitation of nationalist poet Albert Wass, AP reported. Wass was sentenced to death in absentia in 1946 for inciting the killing of Jews and ethnic Romanians during World War II. He fled to Germany and later emigrated to the United States, where he committed suicide in 1988 at the age of 90. In 1978, the United States refused to extradite him to Romania on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to implicate him in the killings. Similar commemoration ceremonies, at which participants read from Wass's works, were held in Hungary the same day. The Romanian authorities are demanding that a bust erected in a church courtyard in Wass's memory be dismantled on the basis of a 2002 ordinance that prohibits the erection of memorials or the naming of streets in honor of war criminals. MS

TIRASPOL REJECTS NEW PLAN FOR MOLDOVA'S FEDERALIZATION...
The official separatist Olivia-Press agency said in a 20 February commentary that the plan for federalization worked out by the three mediators of the Transdniester conflict (Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE) at their 26-27 January meeting in Sofia does not take the region's interests into account, Flux reported. The agency said the plan is "inferior" to the Russian plan commonly known as "the Kozak memorandum." It said that unlike the memorandum, the new plan does not grant Transdniester the status of a state entity, the separatist region instead being referred to as a "federation subject." The new plan, Olivia-Press noted, makes no mention of separate state symbols for Transdniester or of the status of the Russian language in the envisaged federation. Tiraspol also objects to the fact that the mediators' plan includes a reference to an international peacekeeping contingent and takes this to mean that the mediators intend to accept NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's proposal for a peacekeeping mission under the aegis of the OSCE. Meanwhile, Transdniester Supreme Soviet Chairman Grigorii Marakutsa told journalists in Moscow on 21 February that Russian forces must remain in Transdniester until the conflict is resolved, ITAR-TASS reported. MS

...AS CHISINAU CALLS FOR DEPLOYING INTERNATIONAL PEACEKEEPERS IN TRANSDNIESTER
Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova on 20 February said international peacekeeping forces should immediately be deployed in the security zone dividing the belligerent sides in view of the rapid deterioration of the situation in Bendery-Tighina, Flux and Infotag reported. Sova said the Transdniester side is continuing to take "unilateral action" aimed at seizing the building in which Moldovan Interior Ministry forces are stationed. Sova said the separatist authorities intend to create an "artificial hotbed of tension" against the background of the ongoing settlement efforts. OSCE mission spokesman Claus Neukirch told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service that he cannot comment on the request to deploy international peacekeepers until further consultations are held with all sides involved. MS

BULGARIAN CONSERVATIVES RE-ELECT LEADER, FACE SPLIT
Former Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova was re-elected on 21 February as chairwoman of the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), mediapool.bg reported. Mihailova received 2,438 votes of the 2,816 delegates attending the party's extraordinary national congress. Her rival for the leadership post, former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, did not participate in the congress. Last week, he called on his supporters to meet separately, which was widely taken as a sign that he intends to found a new party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January and 19 February 2004). After her election, Mihailova said that under her leadership there will be no place for "feuds and self-destructive divisions." Kostov's supporters, including a group of 29 legislators, announced after the vote that they will leave the SDS. Sofia Mayor Stefan Sofiyanski, commenting on Mihailova's re-election and the lawmakers' announcement that they intend to leave the SDS, said that his party, the Union of Free Democrats (SSD), is ready to accept the defectors. UB

BULGARIA SELLS STATE TELECOMS COMPANY
Iliyan Vasilev of the state Privatization Agency and Joanna Jones the U.S.-based Advent International Investment fund on 20 February signed a contract for the sale of a 65-percent stake in the state-owned Bulgarian Telecommunications Company (BTK) to Viva Ventures, which is owned by Advent International, BTA reported. Viva Ventures, which will pay $290 million for the stake, agreed to invest $890 million in BTK over the next five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2004). UB

IS IRAQ SLIPPING TOWARD CIVIL WAR?
A recent surge of attacks in Iraq such as the 14 February attack on an Iraqi police station in Al-Fallujah and two attacks on Iraqi police and military last week have sparked further debate on whether Iraq might be slipping toward civil war.

The precarious security situation in the country was probably summed up best by UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Baghdad last week, when he said: "I have appealed to members of the [Iraqi] Governing Council and to Iraqis in every part of Iraq to be conscious that civil wars do not happen because a person makes a decision, 'Today I'm going to start a civil war.'" Brahimi went on to say that civil wars erupt, "because people are reckless, people are selfish, because people think more of themselves than they do their own country." The fact that Brahimi was addressing the possibility of civil war in Iraq is in itself a startling revelation. But, ordinary Iraqis and aid workers also warn that sectarian strife may be just around the corner.

One foreign aid worker in Al-Nasiriyah, who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL this week that the situation on the ground appears to be worsening every day. "Many bad scenarios could happen with the June deadline approaching. Terrorists are really targeting any indication of stability and normality," he said. "More dangerously, [they] are playing the game of inciting and creating hatred among already antagonized ethnic and religious groups." Another international aid worker stationed in Baghdad, who asked not to be identified, said that even Iraqis working for the coalition have begun making plans to leave, out of fear that a civil war may erupt as the 30 June handover date approaches.

The CIA also remains pessimistic that sovereignty can be returned to Iraqis without ethnic strife or even civil war, one senior U.S. official has said according to an 18 February Knight-Ridder report. The CIA is reportedly concerned about Iranian attempts to influence Iraq, as well as the possibility that Iraqi Sunni militants will turn their violence on Shi'ites if they gain power.

"The Miami Herald" reported on 17 February that Iraqis conveyed their fears of sectarian violence to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in Kirkuk earlier this month. Sunni Arabs at the meeting complained that they were being abused and mistreated by the Kurds. The Shi'ites insisted that they would only be satisfied once free and open elections were held, while other Iraqis reportedly complained that local militias, who owe no loyalty to the central government, are intimidating and frightening people, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, even the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) leadership appears fractured. IGC members Shaykh Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir and Nasir Kamil al-Chadirchi told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the Sunni voice inside the council is "weak" and that there are unpublicized alliances among the members of the council "that we should stay away from," the daily reported on 15 February. Both men are Sunnis. "What worries us most is the sectarian problem in Iraq," al-Yawir said. "The issue of nationality between Arabs and Kurds is simple and can be surmounted. Sectarian sedition, however, is extremely dangerous, particularly since some neighboring countries or some regional and international forces are encouraging such sedition."

IGC member Iyad Allawi downplayed the 14 February attacks in Al-Fallujah, telling reporters, "This is a war that is being waged against Iraqis, and we are going to wage a war against them," implying that the attacks may have come from foreign fighters rather than Iraqis, ft.com reported on 16 February. IGC spokesman Hamid al-Kifa'i echoed Allawi's statements saying Iraqis "never fought each other." "We are one nation and we will stay united."

U.S. military officials continue to report on the arrest of foreign fighters in Iraq, and this week the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps reportedly dispatched some 800 troops to northern Iraq to prevent infiltrators from entering the country from Iran. Nonetheless, reports from blast sites in recent days indicate that rumors circulated amongst residents that Iraqis from other sects might be behind the violence -- and it is not just Sunni militants who are being blamed. In a part of the world where conspiracy theories abound, such talk is not that uncommon. However, it can also lead to untold consequences if such violence continues.

AFGHAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION INVESTIGATES CHILD DISAPPEARANCES
UN spokesman in Afghanistan Manoel de Almeida e Silva on 22 February said that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) received more than 300 reports of missing children in the last five months of 2003, according to a UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan press release. The AIHRC is investigating approximately 85 cases in which children were reportedly kidnapped for their body parts, de Almeida e Silva said. The AIHRC has launched a nationwide awareness campaign to prevent child kidnapping. AIHRC said it is aware that many kidnapped Afghan children are taken to Persian Gulf states, chiefly Saudi Arabia, to work as laborers. The Afghan Labor and Social Affairs Ministry on 18 February established a commission aimed at finding ways to prevent the smuggling of children (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). AT

CHOPPER ATTACKED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
One person was killed and two were wounded in southern Afghanistan on 22 February when a helicopter carrying employees of the U.S.-based Louis Berger construction firm came under automatic-rifle fire, international media reported. According to a press release from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, an unidentified assailant fired on the helicopter as is was preparing to take off near Kandahar city. The pilot, an Australian national, died at the scene, and injured were a security guard and a construction supervisor inspecting one of seven health clinics the construction firm supervises in the Kandahar area. Police arrested some 30 suspected neo-Taliban members in the village of Thaloqan, where the chopper was attacked, AP reported on 23 February. Abdul Samad, claming to speak on behalf of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack. However, his claims that eight guerrillas were involved did not correspond with eyewitness accounts. AT

UN RELEASES FARMERS' INTENTION SURVEY ON AFGHAN DRUGS...
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on 18 February released its "Afghanistan Farmers' Intention Survey 2003/2004," UN Information Service reported. The 53-page survey of 1,329 farmers and village headsmen randomly selected across regions of Afghanistan in which the opium poppy is grown (http://www.unodc.org/pdf/afg/afg_fis_report_2003-2004.pdf) illustrates that opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan could increase in 2004. "Two farmers out of three interviewed...stated they intended to increase significantly their opium-poppy cultivation in 2004." The survey also shows that most of the farmers surveyed own the land they cultivate, and that they themselves decide what to plant. Overall, one-fourth of Afghan farmers were engaged in opium-poppy cultivation in 2003. Opium-poppy crops accounted for 27 percent of the land the farmers cultivated, but generated more than 60 percent of their annual income. Poppy seeds are easy to obtain, either from the previous harvest or local markets. In 2003, Afghanistan produced its largest its amount of opium since 1999, estimated at 3,600 tons, representing more than three-fourths of the world's illicit opium production (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 February 2004). AT

...AS AFGHAN FARMERS EXPLAIN WHY THEY GROW POPPIES
Herat News Center on 18 February quoted an Afghan farmer in Shindand District of western Afghanistan's Herat Province as saying that while he is aware of "the consequences of poppy cultivation," he has no choice but to grow it. The unidentified farmer added that he is 30 years old and should be getting married, "but without poppy growing" he can "never make it," because marriage is an expensive endeavor. Another unidentified farmer said that "poor agricultural conditions, particularly water shortage and drought, are threatening us," and complained that farmers have yet to receive assistance from any organization. This, the second farmer said, has led farmers to cultivate poppies. "In my opinion, the policy of the government, as well as of the international community, regarding the campaign against drugs is still unclear," he said. "Once they announced they would substitute another crop. Once they said they would give us $350 for each jerib [44 square meters] where the poppy was grown. However, they have broken their promises," he said. "The yield of other crops has disappointed us, and now we have no hope or options." AT

IRANIAN GOVERNMENT UNDECIDED ON ELECTION TURNOUT
Various branches of the Iranian government are providing conflicting numbers for voter turnout in Iran's 20 February parliamentary elections, local media reported on 22 February. According to the conservative-affiliated state television on 22 February, turnout was 60 percent overall and approximately 50 percent in Tehran. The pro-reform Interior Ministry's press office announced on 22 February that a total of 23,438,030 votes were cast, IRNA reported. With 46,351,032 eligible voters, according to the Interior Ministry, this put overall voter turnout at 50.57 percent. Some 2,764,923 people voted in Tehran, putting turnout there at 33.77 percent. The Interior Ministry provided information on turnout in other provinces on 22 February, ILNA reported. According to those figures, turnout was 57.73 percent in Fars Province, 55.59 percent in Khuzestan Province, 51.08 percent in Hamedan Province; 41.62 percent in Isfahan Province, 55.98 percent in East Azerbaijan Province, and 42.79 percent in Mazandaran Province. BS

IRANIAN REFORMIST CITES LOW TURNOUT
Mustafa Tajzadeh of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, which boycotted the elections, said in a 21 February press conference that less than 30 percent of eligible Tehran voters participated in the elections, ILNA reported. "According to the figures we received yesterday, approximately 1.7 million people, out of a total of 6 million eligible voters in Tehran, took part in the elections," Tajzadeh said. He added that conservative candidates garnered less than 15 percent of the vote. BS

IRANIAN GOVERNMENT INVESTIGATES RAILWAY DISASTER
An unnamed security official cited in the conservative "Siyasat-i Ruz" daily on 21 February said that "sabotage and conspiracy are possible" causes of the fatal 18 February railroad accident in northeastern Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). "If the sabotage theory is proved," the source said, "the goal of the masterminds behind this accident was to impose a psychological shock on the eve of elections." IRNA on 21 February put the toll at 315 people dead, 460 wounded, and 90 missing. Investigators from the State Inspectorate Organization have been dispatched to the scene of the incident, IRNA reported. In a 21 February message to Friday-prayer leaders, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said it is important to get to the bottom of the incident, IRNA reported. He expressed his condolences to the grieving families. BS

TEHRAN, TOKYO SIGN OIL CONTRACT...
Kazumasa Kusaka, the director-general of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy of Japan's International Trade and Industry Ministry, on 18 February signed a $2.8 billion agreement on the development of the Azadegan oil field, the "Financial Times" reported. Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh said on 19 February that in the initial phase of the contract 150,000 barrels of oil per day will be produced, and in the second phase output will increase to 410,000 barrels per day, IRNA reported. Thirty-six wells will be dug in the first phase, and another 39 wells will be dug in the second. Namdar-Zanganeh said the contract will boost the two countries' economic cooperation in more than just the oil sector. BS

...BUT WASHINGTON IS UNTROUBLED
The signing of the Azadegan development contract was expected last June but crumbled in the face of U.S. opposition to outside investment in Iran's energy sector (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 July 2003). The "Financial Times" reported on 19 February that the U.S. stance "softened" following Japan's deployment of troops to Iraq and Tehran's agreement to allow snap inspections of its nuclear facilities. "I'm not at all concerned that this decision will weaken our cooperation in ensuring that Iran is held to account of its obligations under the nonproliferation treaty and under the resolutions of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency," U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton said in Tokyo on 19 February, Kyodo World Service reported. BS

U.S. CIVILIAN ADMINISTRATOR HINTS ELECTIONS COULD BE DELAYED ONE YEAR
U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer told Dubai's Al-Arabiyah television on 21 February that national direct elections could be delayed in Iraq for a year or more, depending upon how long it takes to build an infrastructure to support those elections, RFE/RL reported on 22 February. "The most important problems are technical ones, as UN specialists pointed out when they were here last week. Iraq has no election law; it has no electoral commission to even establish a law; it has no law governing political parties; it has no voters' lists; it has not had a credible, reliable census in almost 20 years; there are no constituent boundaries to decide where elections would take place," Bremer said. "These technical problems will take time to fix. The UN estimates somewhere between a year to 15 months. It might be that it could be sped up a little bit, but there are real important technical problems why elections are not possible, as [UN] Secretary-General [Kofi Annan] announced" on 19 February. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq issued a press release (http://www.cpa-iraq.org) on 22 February acknowledging Bremer's remarks but adding, "Ambassador Bremer did not articulate a coalition position on an estimated timetable." KR

DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS ELECTIONS IMPOSSIBLE WHILE IRAQ IS OCCUPIED
Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov said on 21 February that while Russia believes there must be national elections in Iraq, it is "very hard to imagine" how these elections could be prepared as long as Iraq is occupied, Interfax reported. Characterizing as "notorious" an agreement signed in November between the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council on a gradual handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi people, Fedotov said Russia has warned that the plan is not viable because it amounts to "an attempt at a behind-the-scenes settlement in Iraq, without the broad participation of the international community." He said the United Nations must take the lead in preparing and holding elections in Iraq, but that this can happen only "once Iraq is no longer under occupation and is sovereign again." Fedotov's Bremer's comment that elections cannot be held in Iraq for 12 to 15 months for "technical" reasons. JB

SUICIDE BOMBER STRIKES KIRKUK POLICE STATION IN IRAQ
A suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle outside a police station in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on 23 February, international media reported. According to Reuters, as many as 13 people were killed in the blast in addition to the bomber, and 51 were injured. The attack took place in a Kurdish area of the city. Kirkuk has been rife with tensions in recent months, as Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans vie for control over the oil-rich city. KR

KURDS SEEK 'SPECIAL PROVISIONS' IN DRAFT CONSTITUTION
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has posted a document on its website (http://www.krg.org) that would serve as an amendment to the draft Iraqi constitution now under debate by Iraqi Governing Council members. The draft calls for "special provisions" for the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, including the continued enforcement of Kurdish laws and the continued functioning of the Kurdistan National Assembly. It also calls for the establishment of a Kurdistan National Guard, which would serve as a component of the Iraqi armed forces. The document stipulates that other elements of the Iraqi armed forces will not enter Kurdish territory "without the consent of the Kurdish National Assembly" and demands Kurdish control over public land and water, petroleum, and mineral resources located within Iraqi Kurdistan. KR

SUNNI SHAYKH ASSASSINATED IN BAGHDAD
Sunni Shaykh Sami al-Dari was gunned down outside his home in Baghdad on 21 February, Al-Jazeera reported. Al-Dari is the brother of Shaykh Harith al-Dari, secretary-general of the Iraqi Muslim Ulama Council. Representatives of the council blamed foreign forces, not Iraqis, for the assassination. Council member Shaykh Abd al-Sattar Abd al-Jabbar told Al-Jazeera in a 21 February interview that the assassination "is part of a plan to ignite a sectarian war" in Iraq. "What happened is part of an attempt, which we have been sensing for some time, by unidentified parties to ignite a sectarian war in Iraq. One of the [Muslim Ulama Council's] constants is to work for a unified Iraq -- Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'ites. However, we have recently begun to realize that some people do not like this. Our relations are good with many Shi'ite parties. This is in addition to the Sunnis' position. Regrettably, some sides want to ignite a sectarian war in this country," he added. KR

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