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Newsline - February 27, 2004


DUMA COMMITTEE HEAD TAKES ISSUE WITH U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT...
State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Unified Russia) on 26 February responded to criticism of Russia contained in the U.S. State Department's "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices -- 2003," which were released on 25 February, Interfax reported. "The complaints are not new, but I think it is not very appropriate for the Americans to take such mentor positions, especially considering the international community's criticism of the U.S. policy on Iraq and the [detention of so-called enemy combatants without due process at the] Guantanamo base in Cuba," Kosachev said. "We have conducted, and will continue to conduct, a dialogue with the Americans, and I am confident that the real development of events in our country will prove to them in the nearest future that the critical conclusions made in the State Department's report are without grounds." The 2003 human rights report can be found on the State Department's website (http://www.state.gov). JB

...WHICH TAKES RUSSIA TO TASK OVER ELECTIONS, MEDIA, AND MURDERS
In its section on Russia, the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2003 says the Russian government manipulated the presidential elections in Chechnya in October and Russia's parliamentary elections in December, and that both elections "failed to meet international standards." The report notes that the government took TVS, "the only remaining nationwide non-state-affiliated" television channel, off the air, and criminally prosecuted members of opposition parties. It also states that there were "a number of killings of government officials throughout the country, some of which may have been politically motivated, in connection with either the ongoing strife in Chechnya, or with politics." It mentions the April 2003 murder of State Duma Deputy and Liberal Russia co-Chairman Sergei Yushenkov, and also notes that State Duma Deputy Yurii Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist who was also deputy editor of "Novaya gazeta," died "under mysterious circumstances" in July. "Along with Yushenkov, Shchekochikhin had begun to investigate charges of [Federal Security Service (FSB)] responsibility for a series of 1999 apartment-building bombings at the time of his death," the report states. JB

WIFE OF JAILED EX-FSB OFFICER APPEALS TO BRITISH PRIME MINISTER
The U.S. State Department's recently released human rights report says Russia's judicial system showed increasing independence in 2003 and that "progress was made toward effective judicial oversight over arrests and detentions." Still, it says that cases like that of Mikhail Trepashkin, the former FSB official and lawyer who also worked with slain Duma Deputy Yushenkov in investigating the 1999 apartment-building bombings, "raised concerns about the undue influence of the FSB and arbitrary use of the judicial system." Trepashkin was arrested in October on charges of disclosing state secrets and illegal possession of a handgun and ammunition. His closed trial began in December, and Britain's "The Guardian" reported in January that he is accused of spying for Britain's MI5. Ekho Moskvy reported on 26 February that Trepashkin's wife, Tatyana Trepashkina, has delivered an appeal to the United Kingdom's Embassy in Moscow asking Prime Minister Tony Blair either to refute the charges that her husband spied for British intelligence or to take him under the British government's "official protection." JB

RUSSIA ACCUSES QATAR OF SUPPORTING TERRORISM...
There was further reaction on 26 February to reports that the Qatari authorities have filed murder charges against two Russian special-services employees accused of involvement in the 13 February car bombing that killed former Chechen acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). Acting Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who had earlier called the Qatari authorities' actions a "provocation," called in Qatar's ambassador to Russia, Saad Muhammed al-Kubeisi, to lodge a formal protest, "Vremya novostei" reported on 27 February. The Foreign Ministry accused the Qatari authorities of "not fulfilling their international obligations in the war on terrorism" and of having practically taken Yandarbiev under their "stewardship" by giving him freedom to meet with "representatives of various terrorist and extremist religious organizations" and to collect funds "for carrying out new terrorist attacks in different countries," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 27 February. Presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii claimed that Yandarbiev had links to Al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamic groups and that Russia had requested Yandarbiev's extradition, but Qatar had not complied, RIA-Novosti reported on 26 February. JB

...AS RUSSIAN MEDIA DEBATE WHO KILLED CHECHEN EX-PRESIDENT
"Vremya novostei" wrote on 27 February that the murder charges filed in Qatar against two Russian special-services employees for their alleged role in former acting Chechen President Yandarbiev's assassination are creating "a dirty and noisy scandal...without precedent in the history of the new Russia." "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that day said the Foreign Ministry, by paying so much attention in its statements to Yandarbiev's alleged terrorist activities, reduced the likelihood that the jailed special-services employees would be freed. "What is more, the statements can be taken as a confirmation by the Foreign Ministry that Moscow had...serious motives to eliminate Yandarbiev." However, "Kommersant-Daily" on 27 February quoted unnamed special-services employees as saying that even if Yandarbiev's assassination had been ordered, it would not have been carried out by staff employees officially dispatched to Qatar but by "secret agents...in no way directly connected to Russia." "Russia does not carry out political murders abroad, otherwise [former KGB Major General Oleg] Kalugin and [former FSB Colonel Aleksandr] Litvinenko and another 10 traitors would have been eliminated long ago," one source added. JB

RUMORS ABOUND ABOUT INCOMING MINISTERS...
"Novye izvestiya" on 26 February surveyed the rumor mill on the subject of whom President Vladimir Putin will appoint to the new government. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, once viewed as a leading candidate for prime minister, is likely to remain in his current job instead, the paper speculated. Possible candidates for the top job include acting Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Aleshin, and State Duma First Deputy Speaker Aleksandr Zhukov. An unnamed source told "Novye izvestiya" that Putin might name Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii as deputy prime minister. During former President Boris Yeltsin's presidency, Yavlinskii refused to accept any government job below the rank of prime minister, however, the paper reported that he and Putin met on 24 February. "Novye izvestiya" cited an unnamed Kremlin source as predicting that Putin's chief of staff, Dmitrii Medvedev, will replace Gazprom Chairman Aleksei Miller, who will become natural resources minister in the new government. First deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitrii Kozak would be promoted to Medvedev's old job, the newspaper predicted. LB

...AND OUTGOING PREMIER
"Russkii kurer" on 26 February speculated about former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's next career move. Experts interviewed by the newspaper agreed that Kasyanov will have no shortage of offers from private firms and partially state-owned companies. Dmitrii Oreshkin, the head of the Merkator analytical group, predicted that "the authorities will do everything they can to keep Kasyanov far away from political and economic resources, as well as from real levers of influence," in order to prevent him from becoming a strong candidate in the 2008 presidential election. Unnamed leading figures in the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) told Interfax on 25 February that the party is considering asking Kasyanov to become its chairman. A recent SPS congress accepted the resignations of the four people who had co-chaired the party -- Irina Khakamada, Yegor Gaidar, Anatolii Chubais, and Boris Nemtsov -- and deferred a decision on naming a new leader (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2004). LB

UNIFIED RUSSIA WANTS GRYZLOV TO STAY IN DUMA
Yurii Volkov, deputy leader of the Unified Russia State Duma faction, told RIA-Novosti on 26 February that members of his party would prefer that Boris Gryzlov continue to serve as Duma speaker and Unified Russia faction leader rather than becoming prime minister. Volkov was responding to a "Kommersant-Daily" article that speculated that Putin might appoint Gryzlov to head the new cabinet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). Volkov said that while "it would be an enormous honor" for Unified Russia to have Gryzlov appointed prime minister, Gryzlov "did a lot for [our] victory in the State Duma elections" and is "consolidating all the members of our faction and party, and also all Unified Russia supporters." LB

POLLSTERS FIND PUBLIC CREDITS PUTIN, BLAMES GOVERNMENT
Researchers at the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) have found that the public tends to credit President Putin with improvements in the quality of life while blaming the government for negatives such as inflation and the nonpayment of wages, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 26 February. For instance, a January 2004 VTsIOM poll found that 37 percent of respondents approved of the government, while 42 percent disapproved. At the same time, 77 percent approved of Putin, and only 13 percent disapproved. The federal government also has lower approval ratings than other parts of the executive branch, such as the presidential envoys to the federal districts or governors. A survey conducted by ROMIR in December 2003 likewise revealed the relative unpopularity of the government. Asked which state institution they trusted most, 50 percent of respondents named the president, while just 9 percent named the government. LB

GLAZEV: DON'T BELIEVE OPINION POLLS
Presidential candidate Sergei Glazev predicted that the presidential election will go to a second round if Russia's "patriotic forces" manage to avert "massive falsification" on 14 March, regions.ru reported on 26 February. Opinion polls suggest that Putin will easily exceed the 50 percent of the vote he needs to win outright. However, Glazev argued that Putin's real approval rating is around 45 percent, and that turnout will be low. On 25 February, Glazev announced plans to stay in the presidential race to the end, Russian media reported, despite calls on him to withdraw (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). LB

RYBKIN FIGHTS FOR RIGHT TO DEBATE FROM ABROAD
Presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin on 26 February appealed to the Supreme Court against a decision by the Central Election Commission (TsIK) to bar him from participating in televised debates from abroad, Russian media reported. Rybkin plans to stay in the United Kingdom for the remainder of the campaign and sought to participate in the debates by satellite link. However, the TsIK interpreted the election law as requiring that candidates attend the debates in person. Rybkin's attorneys will argue that the law grants citizens who are abroad during election campaigns the same participation rights as other citizens. Meanwhile, the TsIK on 25 February registered tycoon Boris Berezovskii and one of his close associates, former Logovaz Deputy General Director Yulii Dubov, as official campaign agents for Rybkin. Last year, the United Kingdom granted both Berezovskii and Dubov political asylum. Both are wanted in Russia on fraud and money-laundering charges. LB

KREMLIN OFFICIAL BACKS REFERENDUM ON MERGING TWO MORE REGIONS
Deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov has proposed holding a referendum in late 2004 on merging Irkutsk Oblast with Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 26 February, citing Irkutsk Legislative Assembly Speaker Gennadii Istomin. Surkov met with the executive and legislative leaders of both regions on 24 February. If the referendum passes, the merger would take place in late 2005, Istomin said. Residents of Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug recently approved similar merger referendums, and that merger is likely to move ahead rapidly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004). Likewise, the governors of Tyumen Oblast and of Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug announced this week that they are beginning work on merging their regions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). LB

COMMUNIST DUMA DEPUTY FACES CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION
The Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case against Duma Deputy Viktor Vidmanov, a member of the Communist faction and a leading Communist Party sponsor, "Gazeta" reported on 26 February. Vidmanov is under investigation for allegedly misallocating budgetary funds earmarked for the Rosagropromstroi corporation, which he heads. Duma Deputy Gennadii Gudkov, who co-authored a parliamentary request that the prosecutor's office investigate the case, charges that Vidmanov bought helicopters with the funds instead of building housing. "Gazeta" noted that when the Duma approved the request in November 2003, its backers gained their colleagues' support by hinting that Rosagrompromstroi was using budgetary funds to finance the Communist Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 19 November 2003). Communist presidential candidate Nikolai Kharitonov characterized the criminal investigation as an attempt to discredit his campaign. LB

TATARSTAN'S LEGISLATURE CHALLENGES CYRILLIC-ONLY LAW
The Tatar State Council on 26 February appealed to the federal Constitutional Court to review the federal law on languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation, RIA-Novosti reported. The legislators are challenging a provision in the law requiring that state languages of Russian Federation republics use Cyrillic-based alphabets. Their inquiry argues that republics have the constitutional right to adopt their own state languages and notes that the Tatar language used the Latin alphabet in the 1920s and 1930s. The State Duma and the Federation Council mandated the use of Cyrillic in amendments to the law on languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation that were passed in late 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 27 November 2002). LB

RUSSIAN OFFICIAL SAYS ABDUCTED AID WORKER STILL ALIVE
Presidential aide Yastrzhembskii told journalists in Brussels in 26 February that Arjan Erkel, a Dutch employee of Doctors Without Borders who was abducted in Daghestan in August 2002, is definitely alive, and that Russian intelligence is trying to negotiate his release, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 August 2002 and 1 April and 20 November 2003). A spokeswoman for Daghestan's Interior Ministry told Interfax on 12 February that "everything possible is being done" to find and release Erkel. The identity of his abductors remains unclear. LF

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT CALLS FOR STRONGER EU ENGAGEMENT IN SOUTH CAUCASUS
The European Parliament adopted on 26 February a report drafted by its rapporteur, Swedish parliamentarian Per Gahrton, calling for closer ties between the EU and the three South Caucasus states, RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 January 2004). The Gahrton report specifically advocates an increase in EU aid to the South Caucasus and calls on the EU to solicit the cooperation of Russia and Turkey in resolving regional conflicts. Parliamentarians insisted, however, on removing from Gahrton's draft report a demand that Armenian forces be withdrawn from five Azerbaijani districts adjacent to the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in exchange for the resumption of rail traffic from Azerbaijan to Armenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January and 3 February 2004). The Armenian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 26 February noting that "the EU has refused once again to make a one-sided decision on Nagorno-Karabakh," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. LF

U.S. REGISTERS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS IN ARMENIA, AZERBAIJAN
In its annual report on human rights worldwide, which was released on 25 February, the U.S. State Department characterized Armenia's human rights record as "poor," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The report, which is posted on the department's website (http://www.state.gov), specifically condemned widespread irregularities during the presidential and parliamentary elections last year, and also minor limitations on media freedom, including the inability of the independent television station A1+ to resume broadcasting. The report also described Azerbaijan's human rights record in 2003 as "poor," similarly pointing to "serious abuses," including the police crackdown on opposition activists who protested the perceived falsification of the outcome of the 15 October presidential election, some 700 of whom were arrested. The report further criticized police brutality, the use of torture against detainees, the holding of some 180 political prisoners, financial pressure on independent media, and the use of state-controlled media to propagandize government policy and demonize the opposition, Turan reported on 26 February. LF

ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT WITHDRAWS CONTROVERSIAL MILITARY-SERVICE BILL
Yielding to widespread student protests, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian withdrew from parliament on 26 February a controversial draft bill that would have abolished the possibility of graduate students postponing their compulsory military service until after they completed their course of study, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. In an apparent sideswipe at Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Markarian said the authors of the bill should have explained the rationale for it "in a timely and appropriate manner." Students walked out of a meeting with Sarkisian at Yerevan State University on 25 February to protest his rejection of their argument that forcing graduate students to postpone their studies would negatively impact academic standards in science and higher education (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 23, and 26 February 2004). LF

PACE RAPPORTEUR VISITS AZERBAIJAN
Following his talks earlier this week in Stepanakert and Yerevan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2004), British parliamentarian Terry Davis met in Baku on 26 February with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and with parliament deputies and journalists to discuss approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict, Turan reported. Aliyev stressed that Azerbaijan does not want the Council of Europe to take over from the OSCE Minsk Group responsibility for seeking a solution to the conflict, but hopes nonetheless that the report that Davis is to compile will contain "a political assessment" of the conflict." LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT ACCUSES ABKHAZ OF ETHNIC CLEANSING...
Addressing the UN Security Council on 26 February, President Mikheil Saakashvili accused the authorities of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia of pursuing a policy of deliberate ethnic cleansing, RFE/RL's UN correspondent reported. Saakashvili alleged that "we are talking about a situation in which just being ethnically Georgian automatically means being killed if you enter that territory." Members of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia say, however, that thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion during the 1992-93 war have returned and live permanently or semi-permanently in their old homes. The International Criminal Court in The Hague last year rejected a demand by the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile to bring formal charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Abkhaz authorities, according to Caucasus Press on 27 November. LF

...AND URGES SECURITY COUNCIL ACTION
President Saakashvili on 26 February argued that the UN Security Council should exert pressure on the Abkhaz leadership to accept a solution to the conflict that would bestow on Abkhazia "the highest degree of autonomy," RFE/RL reported. Abkhaz leaders argue that the unrecognized republic's population has chosen independence. For that reason, Sukhum has consistently refused to accept as a basis for discussion a UN draft document on resolving the conflict that envisages Abkhazia as an integral part of Georgia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 December 1999). LF

PACE PRESSURES GEORGIA OVER ELECTION LAW
A delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) led by Hungarian parliamentarian Matyas Eorsi met in Tbilisi on 26 and 27 February with Georgian parliamentarians; Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili; and his predecessor in that post, Nana Devdariani, Caucasus Press reported. Eorsi expressed concern and indignation at the outgoing parliament's failure to act on the suggestion made in Tbilisi last week by visiting Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer that the barrier for parliamentary representation under the proportional system be reduced from 7 percent to 5 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 26 February 2004). Eorsi also deplored the failure to amend the composition of election commissions to ensure parity between the authorities and opposition parties. LF

ADJAR STUDENT RELEASED FROM DETENTION
Two students from Batumi who were detained in Tbilisi on 24 February on suspicion of illegal possession of weapons have been released from jail after giving a written pledge not to leave Tbilisi, Caucasus Press reported on 27 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). LF

FALLOUT CONTINUES FROM TELEVISED BEATING OF KAZAKH CONVICTS
Kazakh Justice Ministry Criminal Corrections Committee Chairman Nurlan Smagulov and two of his deputies have resigned in the wake of the airing on national television of footage purporting to show the beating of convicts at a strict-regime camp in the town of Arkalyk, Deutsche Welle reported on 26 February. The Justice Ministry earlier fired the head of the Kostanai Oblast criminal-corrections system, Vasilii Klimentiev; his deputy; the head of the Arkalyk prison where the film was made, Marat Zhetmekov, and his deputy. Inmates have accused the last two of exceeding their authority and using force against prisoners. The secretly made film was broadcast on 4 February, unleashing a national scandal that caused some parliamentarians to demand the resignation of Justice Minister Onalsyn Zhumabekov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 12 February 2004). The Arkalyk incident is far from unique, according to human rights activists. BB

KYRGYZSTAN WON'T ACCEPT GERMAN NUCLEAR WASTE
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev has told a government session that Kyrgyzstan will not accept German nuclear waste for reprocessing, khabar.kg reported on 27 February. He was reacting to a public statement from an NGO leader on 24 February, who insisted that a reprocessing joint venture with Germany's RWE NUKEM is not only not profitable to Kyrgyzstan, but would ruin Kyrgyzstan's environmental image (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2004). Tanaev commented that the government is not going to turn the country into a foreign nuclear-waste dump, saying that Kyrgyzstan has enough of its own waste. BB

NEPOTISM PROHIBITION ADDED TO TAJIK LABOR CODE
Tajikistan's lower house of parliament has approved a series of changes to the country's Labor Code, including a prohibition on heads of agencies, their deputies, cashiers, and bookkeepers who are related to one another from working in the same firm, Deutsche Welle reported on 26 February. Tajik Labor Minister Makhmadsho Ilolov said the nepotism prohibition would also be applied to nongovernmental organizations in an effort to overcome the Central Asian tradition that family members who have obtained jobs are morally obliged to find or provide jobs to unemployed relatives. BB

REPRESENTATIVES OF NATO STATES' EMBASSIES IN TASHKENT MEET TO ASSESS UZBEK RELATIONS WITH NATO
Representatives of NATO member states with embassies in Tashkent met with Uzbek First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov on 26 February to discuss cooperation between NATO and Uzbekistan, and the possible creation of a NATO Partnership-for-Peace (PfP) training center in Tashkent, uzreport.com reported. While Uzbekistan was praised for being the first Central Asian state to submit to NATO an individual plan for action under the PfP, the French military attache called on Uzbekistan to be more transparent concerning its military budget and to provide budget information requested by NATO. BB

UZBEKISTAN TO RESTRICT IMPORT, EXPORT OF NATIONAL CURRENCY
As of 1 March, the amount of Uzbek national currency -- the som -- that may be imported into or exported from the country will be restricted to the equivalent of $274, tribune-uz.info reported on 26 February, quoting a Reuter report. The restriction applies to residents and non-residents alike, and anyone wanting to move larger amounts will have to obtain the permission of the Uzbek National Bank. Reportedly, the unification of exchange rates last fall has reduced the volume of sums in circulation, with the result that state salaries and pensions could not be paid on time due to lack of cash. Even exchange offices have found themselves with shortages, and individuals are taking various foreign currencies to neighboring countries and using them to buy soms, which they then carry back to Uzbekistan. BB

EUROPEAN COMMISSION SAYS FEARS OF IMMIGRANTS FROM NEW EU MEMBERS IS UNFOUNDED
Citing a study based on a public-opinion survey conducted by Eurobarometer, the European Commission said on 26 February that fears among current EU member states of a massive influx of low-skilled labor from the 10 acceding states are unfounded, AFP reported. The commission said it is more concerned about the impact of a possible "brain drain" from the new EU members. Acting Employment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said that "the new members states will provide a much-needed input of highly skilled individuals, able to contribute actively to the development of the European economy." On the other hand, she said, the study also shows that "there is a serious risk of a 'youth and brain drain' in the acceding countries, with some 2 percent-3 percent of the 15-24 age group indicating a firm intention to move" into current EU member countries. MS

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION VOWS TO COOPERATE IN MONITORING 2004 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION
Four Belarusian opposition groups signed an agreement in Vilnius on 24 February on cooperation in the 2004 parliamentary election campaign, Belapan reported on 26 February. The Popular Coalition Five Plus, the European Coalition Free Belarus, the Respublika deputy group in the Chamber of Representatives, and the Young Belarus Coalition pledged to pool efforts in proposing representatives to election commissions and monitoring the vote. The four groups also obliged themselves to restrain from criticizing one another during the election campaign. JM

BELARUS REJECTS WORLD BANK LOAN TO FIGHT TUBERCULOSIS, AIDS
The Belarusian government has said it will not borrow $28.8 million from the World Bank for a previously agreed-upon project to combat tuberculosis and AIDS, Belapan reported on 26 February, citing Luca Barbone, World Bank director for Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. Belarusian government officials reportedly told Barbone earlier this week that the decision to abandon the project was prompted by a "serious improvement" in the tuberculosis situation in Belarus, adding that the incidence of the disease has declined to a point where the government can cope with the problem without international assistance. JM

UKRAINIAN INTELLIGENCE DEFECTOR HANDS OVER ALLEGED SPYING ORDERS
General Valeriy Kravchenko, a former intelligence officer at the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin, has passed a purported confidential dossier to opposition lawmaker Mykola Tomenko to corroborate his allegations last week that the Security Service has been illegally spying on opposition activists and cabinet members abroad, AFP and Interfax reported on 26 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004 and End Note below). Tomenko, who is head of the parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Expression and Information, reportedly said the dossier appears to be credible. He was expected to hold a news conference in Kyiv on 27 February regarding the documents provided by Kravchenko, the Our Ukraine website (http://www.razom.org.ua) reported. According to Tomenko, Kravchenko is ready to testify in court in Ukraine if the Prosecutor-General's Office opens a criminal case in connection with his allegations. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT ASKED TO PREVENT CLOSURE OF OPPOSITION NEWSPAPER
Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz has asked President Leonid Kuchma to prevent the liquidation of the opposition newspaper "Silski visti," which was found guilty in January of fomenting interethnic strife in an anti-Semitic publication (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 3 February 2004), Interfax reported on 26 February. Moroz said in an open letter to Kuchma that the court that ruled on the case made "a legally illiterate decision to close [the newspaper] under far-fetched accusations." Moroz claims that the court violated the law by using the Criminal Code in the case against "Silski visti," which he believes should have been considered a civil case. Moroz warned that the closure of "Silski visit" might lead to the fomentation of "anti-Semitism in day-to-day life" and create an "explosive situation." "Silski visti," which primarily targets rural readers, has a circulation of more than 500,000. The newspaper is believed to be linked to the Socialist Party. JM

KYIV ASKS WARSAW TO CLARIFY LOST PRIVATIZATION TENDER
The Ukrainian Embassy in Poland has requested that the Polish Foreign Ministry supply an official explanation of the results of a recent tender to privatize Poland's Huta Czestochowa steelworks, in which the Indian-Dutch-British holding LMN beat the Industrial Union of Donbas, Interfax reported on 26 February. According to Polish Radio, the Ukrainian side believes that the Polish Treasury Minister's decision regarding the privatization of Huta Czestochowa was based on political rather than economic considerations. The Ukrainians are also reportedly offended by Deputy Treasury Minister Andrzej Szarawarski's reported remark that Poland wants to collaborate with upper-division players rather than accidental investors. JM

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT URGES RUSSIA TO SIGN BORDER TREATIES WITH ESTONIA, LATVIA
The European Parliament on 26 February passed a recommendation to the EU's Council of Ministers that lists a number of issues that Russia should resolve to facilitate good-neighborly relations, BNS reported. The recommendation is expected to be taken into consideration in March, when the EU summit discusses future relations between the EU and Russia. "Russia must understand that the EU no longer intends to take part in any negotiations over signing and ratifying the border treaty with Latvia and Estonia," Europarliamentarian Bastian Belder (the Netherlands) said. "The negotiation stage is over and Russia should act as a respectful partner and immediately approve the mentioned treaties." Belder also said that "I believe that Latvia and Estonia have implemented all the Copenhagen criteria, including protection of minorities." The recommendation called on Russia to accept extending the EU-Russian Partnership and Cooperation Agreement when the 10 acceding states join the union on 1 May. SG

LEGAL EXPERTS SEE FURTHER VIOLATIONS BY LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT
Experts of the Law Projects and Research Center claimed on 26 February that President Rolandas Paksas violated the constitution on 24 February when he told the head of the State Security Department in Alytus, Albertas Sereika, to provide him with classified documents regarding the privatization of the distillery Alita, "Kauno diena" reported. Sereika fulfilled the request, initially made by presidential national-security adviser Romualdas Senovaitis, after speaking directly with Paksas by telephone. Sereika was subsequently suspended for failing to obtain permission from his superiors. The experts said that although Paksas is entitled to classified information, he failed to follow the procedures required for such access. Prosecutor-General Antanas Klimantavicius, however, said after talks with the president on 26 February that Paksas was entitled to view the information in question because he has security clearance. Aloyzas Sakalas, chairman of parliament's Legal and Law Enforcement Committee, dismissed the prosecutor's statement as biased and raised the question of holding a no-confidence vote in him. SG

POLISH, GERMAN FIRMS WANT TO BUILD 130-KILOMETER GAS PIPELINE
Poland's Bartimpex and Germany's Ruhrgas are planning to build by the end of 2005 a gas pipeline linking Bernau in Germany with Szczecin in Poland, Polish Radio reported on 26 February. According to the station, the construction project, which has been mulled by both sides in the past, was recently reinvigorated by Gazprom's temporary halt of gas transit to Poland and Germany via Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). The Bernau-Szczecin gas pipeline, which will have a throughput capacity of 2.5 billion cubic meters annually, will link Poland with the EU gas-supply system. The Polish side will have 30 kilometers of the pipeline, while nearly 100 kilometers will be on the German side. JM

SUDETEN GERMANS LEADER ASKS CZECH PRESIDENT TO VETO BILL
Bernd Posselt, leader of the Sudeten Deutsche Landsmannschaft and a member of the European Parliament, appealed on 26 February to Czech President Vaclav Klaus to veto a one-line bill approved two days earlier by the lower house that praises the role played by former Czechoslovakian President Eduard Benes and his contribution to Czechoslovak statehood, CTK reported. In a statement to CTK, Posselt called the bill "a slap in the face to millions of victims, because Benes was responsible not only for stripping millions of Sudeten Germans and Hungarians of their rights and for their deportation [under the 1946 Benes Decrees], but he also brought Czechs and Slovaks under decades-long Soviet domination." He said approving the bill was a poor way to begin Czech membership of the EU. MS

PLANS TO BUILD MOSQUE IN CZECH REPUBLIC ABANDONED
The municipality of Orlova has abandoned plans to build a large mosque following widespread public criticism and lack of endorsement by Saudi Arabia for the project's developer, dpa and CTK reported on 26 February. Mayor Vladimir Faran said he cancelled the plans after meeting with Saudi Ambassador to the Czech Republic Mansur Ibn Khalid Ibn Abdallah Farhan Sa'ud, who told him such projects using Saudi funds must be authorized and that the country's authorities are unaware of the firm that was named as the main financial backer, CTK reported. A purportedly Saudi Arabia-based firm called Islamic Union headed by a longtime Kosovar resident of the Czech Republic was to invest $9 million in the mosque, reportedly intended mainly for Arab nationals coming to visit nearby health resorts. Opponents of the project said it would harm the Christian character of the Czech Republic and collected signatures against it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). MS

CORRECTION:
The 23 February "RFE/RL Newsline" item titled "Former Anticommunist Czech Dissident Dies" should have identified the deceased as Jiri Ruml.

EUROPEAN ROMANY ORGANIZATION SAYS SLOVAKIA DOES NOT MEET EU CRITERIA
The Hamburg-based Roma National Congress (RNC), an umbrella organization of Romany rights groups, said on 26 February that Slovakia "does not meet the criteria for joining the EU," CTK reported. RNC Chairman Rudek Kawczynski said in the statement that following EU accession on 1 May, "an exodus of millions of Roma" to Western Europe can be expected. Kawczynski said the EU has only itself to blame for this situation, because it did not make the improvement of Roma's living conditions in Eastern Europe a condition for admitting new members. The statement says a meeting between RNC Czech and Slovak representatives with Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen last April earmarked special funds for projects aimed at aiding Roma, but those funds have since disappeared without a trace or results. "The current situation is a consequence of negligence by both Slovak authorities and the European Commission," the statement said. According to the Slovak TA3 television channel, representatives of the RNC -- possibly Kawczynski himself -- intend to visit Slovakia soon. MS

SCHUSTER SAYS SLOVAK GOVERNMENT MUST CHANGE SOCIAL POLICIES
President Rudolf Schuster said on 26 February that he welcomes steps taken by the cabinet the previous day to alleviate some of the problems that led to recent unrest among the country's Romany community, TASR reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). Speaking through his spokesman Jan Fule, Schuster added that he remains concerned and that the measures are insufficient for long-term stability. To achieve stability, he said, the government must address "a wider range of social problems, which calls for a change in social policies." MS

HUNGARIAN DEFENSE MINISTER REJECTS NATO RADAR RELOCATION
Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz on 26 February ruled out relocating a radar station about to be built on Zengo Hill as part of NATO's early-warning defense system, AP reported. Environmental and local civic groups have protested the planned construction of the radar station and earlier this month blocked roads leading to the construction site. They say Zengo Hill, in southern Hungary, is in one of the country's most beautiful landscapes and that radioactive emissions from the station will harm surrounding plant and animal life and damage the local tourism industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 July 2003 and 12 February 2004). Juhasz dismissed the protests, saying the environmentalists "receive more radiation using their mobile phones...than they would get from the radar station." MS

HUNGARIAN SOLDIERS IN IRAQ ASK TO BE SENT HOME
Defense Minister said on 26 February that seven members of the 190-strong Hungarian transport contingent in Iraq have asked to be returned home in the wake of the 18 February terrorist attack that injured 10 Hungarian soldiers, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. MS

HUNGARIAN JOURNALISTS REJECT 'ANTI-HUNGARIAN ALLEGATIONS' IN STATE DEPARTMENT REPORT
The Federation of Hungarian Electronic Journalists (MEUSZ) on 26 February issued a statement in which it rejected what it called "encoded anti-Hungarian allegations that came from a certain group of people" in the U.S. State Department's annual report on the human rights situation in Hungary, "Magyar Hirlap" reported on 27 February. According to "Country Report on Human Rights Practices -- 2003" for Hungary, which was released on 25 February, the country's Jewish community is concerned with the anti-Semitic content of some media. The state-radio program "Vasarnapi Ujsag" was specifically mentioned in the report, as was the state-television program "Ejjeli Menedek," which "hosted Holocaust denier David Irving, who made derogatory statements regarding Jews." "Ejjeli Menedek" was cancelled in October 2003, prompting protests from nationalist groups (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 and 31 October and 10 November 2003). MEUSZ said the country report tried to stamp the stigma of anti-Semitism on Hungarian programs and editors that are "not to the liking" of a certain group. The report also criticized government interference in state-run media, excessive police force against Roma, and sexual harassment in the workplace. MSZ

BUDAPEST MUNICIPAL COUNCIL NIXES TELEKI STATUE
The Budapest Municipal Council on 26 February rescinded permission it granted earlier for the erection of a statue honoring the late Hungarian Prime Minister Pal Teleki, Hungarian media reported. Teleki served as prime minister from 1920-21 and 1939-41, and under his rule Hungary enacted legislation introducing a "numerus clausus" regarding Jewish students' access to universities -- the first of its kind in Europe. He reportedly was also involved under the 1936-38 Kalman Daranyi government in the preparations for the so-called "first anti-Jewish law," which established quotas for Jews allowed to engage in business and the liberal professions. The Alliance of Hungarian Religious Jewish Communities and the Simon Wiesenthal Center protested the erection of the statue, and the council suspended permission last February. Many Hungarians best remember Teleki for presiding over the cabinet that recovered northern Transylvania under the 1940 Second Vienna Award. Former Premier Viktor Orban has said Teleki is his political model (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2000). Teleki committed suicide in 1941, when faced with the choice of allowing a German attack on Yugoslavia or having Hungary occupied by the Nazis. MS

MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT'S BODY FOUND IN PLANE WRECK...
Bosnian officials said near Stolac on 27 February that rescue teams have recovered the burned bodies of Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski and eight other people whose plane crashed the previous morning, international and regional media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February 2004). The plane went down in a minefield dating from the 1992-95 conflict located between Mostar and Stolac during bad weather for reasons that have not yet been determined. A Bosnian mine-clearing unit discovered the wreck soon after sunrise the day after the crash. The Bosnian government declared 27 February a day of mourning. In Skopje, Macedonian officials confirmed that the bodies have been recovered. Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski said soon after the crash that his country has "suffered a great loss," and the government announced three days of mourning. PM

...AS THE PARLIAMENT MOURNS...
The parliament interrupted its 26 February session when the news broke of President Trajkovski's death, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Macedonian and ethnic Albanian legislators from all political parties sent condolences to Trajkovski's and his staffers' families. Some legislators, such as former Foreign Minister Slobodan Casule and Ljubislav Ivanov-Dzingo, argued that the ill-fated airplane, a 25-year-old Beechcraft Super King Air B200, was not safe. According to "Utrinski vesnik," the plane has repeatedly had technical problems. Casule and other officials said that they previously refused to use it, Reuters reported. UB

...THE GOVERNMENT LAUNCHES AN INVESTIGATION...
At a special session late on 26 February, the Macedonian government set up a commission headed by Justice Minister Hixhet Mehmeti to investigate the plane crash, "Dnevnik" reported. Mehmeti and a team of investigative judges, prosecutors, police, intelligence officers, and air-traffic experts left for the crash site near Stolac to help SFOR and the Bosnian authorities establish the cause of the accident. An extraordinary session of the National Security Council, headed by parliamentary speaker and now acting President Ljupco Jordanovski, concluded that there is no immediate threat to the country's security following Trajkovski's death. Under the Macedonian Constitution, presidential elections must be held within 40 days after a president's death. UB

...AND U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE PAYS TRIBUTE
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington on 26 February that Trajkovski "was a great friend of the United States," RFE/RL reported. "When I became secretary of state in January of 2001, one of the first issues I had to deal with was the crisis in Macedonia. The place was coming apart," Powell added. He noted that he and Trajkovski became friends and "worked through the problems of Macedonia to the point now where Macedonia's on a stable footing." Powell added that "we have much to be proud of as to what we have accomplished in Macedonia, with our European friends, the Macedonian people, and the Macedonian leaders, especially President Trajkovski. So he will be greatly missed, and we wish the Macedonian people all the best in this time of tragedy." Elsewhere, RFE/RL President Tom Dine said in a statement that he and his colleagues "at RFE/RL are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Boris Trajkovski.... In a region fraught with national, ethnic, and religious tensions, President Trajkovski was a welcome voice of moderation, compassion, and tolerance." PM

SERBIAN LEADER SAYS BOSNIAN INDICTED WAR CRIMINAL IS NOT IN SERBIA
Serbian Prime Minister-designate Vojislav Kostunica told Germany's "Neue Rhein-Ruhr Zeitung" of 26 February that indicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is in Bosnia and not in Serbia, as recently claimed by Carla Del Ponte, who is the chief prosecutor at the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, the private Beta news agency reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 12, and 25 February 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003, and 9 January and 20 February 2004). He argued that for Serbia to extradite him to The Hague would amount to interfering in the internal affairs of another country. Kostunica added that the tribunal is a "problem" for Serbia because that body has indicted a disproportionately large number of Serbs and "manipulated [unspecified] facts" (see "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 5 and 12 February 2004). PM

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT PUBLISHES 'ACTION PLAN' IN RESPONSE TO EU CRITICISM
The cabinet on 26 February released details of an "Action Plan" worked out in response to recent criticism of Romania by the EU, Mediafax reported. The plan, whose implementation deadline is June, includes a package of 40 measures aimed at reforming the justice system and ensuring its political independence; increasing the fight against corruption; ensuring the independence of media and eliminating legal provisions limiting the freedom of expression; and revising legislation on child protection and adoption. MS

SZEKLER REGIONAL-AUTONOMY PLAN SUBMITTED TO ROMANIAN PARLIAMENT
Four Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) deputies in the lower house of parliament officially submitted on 26 February a controversial draft law to the chamber's Bureau that would grant regional autonomy to the territories historically inhabited by the Szeklers -- a group within the country's Hungarian minority -- Mediafax reported. The draft was approved on 17 January by the Szekler National Council (SZNT in Hungarian, CNS in Romanian). It covers an area of some 10,000 square kilometers with 809,000 inhabitants in the current counties of Covasna, Harghita, and Mures -- although it leaves out areas in Covasna and Mures with an ethnic Romanian majority. The UDMR distanced itself from the plan, saying the project has been submitted "at the wrong time and in the wrong formulation" and would "distance us from autonomy rather than bring us closer to it." According to the UDMR statement, the draft runs the risk of "carrying water to the mills of [ethnic] Romanian extremists" and mobilizing them ahead of the June local elections. MS

DEFYING COURT'S ORDER, ROMANIAN MINERS CONTINUE STRIKE
Some 17,000 miners in Oltenia on 26 February defied a court ruling that their strike illegal and ordering them to return to work, saying the verdict was "politically influenced," Mediafax and AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). Meanwhile, the government announced the same day that nearly 7,000 miners across the country are to be laid off in the next few weeks. MS

MOLDOVAN FOREIGN MINISTER HOPES TO RENEW NEGOTIATIONS WITH ROMANIA ON BASIC TREATY
Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan told journalists in Chisinau on 26 February that Moldova hopes Bucharest will agree to renew negotiations on a basic treaty between the two countries, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Stratan said Moldova is not "waging a diplomatic war on any of its neighbors. We strive for good bilateral relations with Romania, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation and none of these good relations should divert us from our path toward European integration." Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said last year that Bucharest is no longer interested in signing such a treaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September and 1 October 2003). Stratan also said he is highly optimistic regarding Moldova's chances for EU integration, despite challenges posed by the envisaged EU-Moldova Action Plan for Chisinau. Moldova's European option, he said, "is irreversible." He said he hopes Moldova will be in a position to begin negotiations in 2007 to become an EU associate member. Stratan also welcomed the recent EU decision to prolong its travel ban on members of the Transdniester leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). MS

OSCE MISSION HEAD IN MOLDOVA SAYS NEGOTIATIONS TO BE RESUMED IN LATE MARCH
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission head in Moldova William Hill said on 26 February that the five-party negotiations on resolving the Transdniester conflict will be resumed in late March, Infotag reported. Aside from the two rivals, the negotiations include the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine as mediators. According to Infotag, Hill also said that inclusion of the EU as a fourth mediator might accelerate achieving a lasting resolution of the conflict. The agency quoted him as saying: "We are working closely with [EU Commission Foreign and Security Affairs head] Javier Solana and believe that the EU's contribution to conflict settlement would be invaluable and have a positive influence. The EU renders a considerable assistance to the OSCE in the Transdniester question. We try to work as colleagues, not as rivals." MS

TELERADIO MOLDOVA PRESIDENT DISMISSED
The Council of Observers that oversees Teleradio Moldova broadcasts unanimously voted on 26 February to dismiss the company's president, Artur Efremov, Flux reported. Efremov said he will challenge the decision in court. He also alleged that the council acted in retaliation for his having uncovered purported fraud at Moldovan Television committed before he became Teleradio Moldova president last year. MS

U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT REPORT ON HUMAN RIGHTS ENRAGES BULGARIAN PROSECUTORS
The Association of Prosecutors in Bulgaria in a 26 February press release criticized the U.S. State Department's annual country report on the human rights situation in Bulgaria, mediapool.bg reported. Association Chairman Rosen Dimov said the conclusion in Bulgaria's "Country Report on Human Rights Practices -- 2003" that the Bulgarian judiciary is hampered by "a lack of transparent and neutral standards for assigning cases, poor coordination between magistrates (prosecutors, investigators, and judges), corruption, low salaries and understaffing, antiquated procedures, and a heavy backlog of cases" is not supported by evidence. Such statements are not only unfounded but also deeply hurtful to the Bulgarian magistrates, who work under much worse conditions than their colleagues in the United States, Dimov said. He admitted, however, that the Bulgarian judiciary experiences serious problems, which are due to "objective reasons" such as lack of financial means, work overload, and a legislative basis that is often contradictory. UB

BULGARIA LOSES YET ANOTHER CASE AT EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights issued a press release on 26 February announcing that it has found the Bulgarian state guilty of a number of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights in connection with the deaths of two conscripts of Romany origin. Military police officers shot the two men while attempting to arrest them on charges of theft in 1996. The court unanimously ruled that the Bulgarian state violated Article 2 of the convention pertaining to the right to life and also failed to investigate the deaths satisfactorily. The court also ruled that the Bulgarian authorities failed to investigate "whether discriminatory attitudes played a role in the shootings." The court awarded the relatives of one victim $27,500 and the other $31,500 in damages. UB

KUCHMAGATE, ACT III
The series of scandals collectively known as Kuchmagate first erupted in November 2000 when Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz released excerpts from audio recordings made in President Leonid Kuchma's office by presidential security service officer Mykola Melnychenko. In September 2002, Kuchmagate-2 began when the U.S. government announced that the FBI had confirmed that the Melnychenko tapes revealed that Kuchma authorized the sale of Kolchuga radar systems to Iraq in July 2000.

Kuchmagate-3 began a day before Kuchma's 19 February visit to Germany, where he met with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. One day before Kuchma arrived in Germany, Valeriy Kravchenko, an officer of the Security Service (SBU) assigned to the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin, visited the offices of Deutsche Welle and gave an interview in which he claimed he had refused to obey orders sent by SBU headquarters demanding that he follow parliamentary deputies, especially from the opposition, and even government ministers when they visited Germany. Kravchenko said the latest orders he received demanded that he monitor preparations for an upcoming Our Ukraine forum in Kyiv that was being assisted by people in Germany.

Kravchenko said he refused to obey these purported orders because under the 2001 law on intelligence, the SBU has no right to meddle in politics or spy on the opposition. President Kuchma oversees control over the "power ministries" and was therefore likely aware of these "illegal" orders, according to Kravchenko.

Kravchenko told Deutsche Welle he complained to SBU headquarters, but was informed by his superiors that "it was none of my business and that I must obey the orders from the center." Kravchenko said he ignored the orders, and after he was replaced on 16 February by another SBU officer he decided to go public. Kravchenko showed the orders to Deutsche Welle, which said they appeared to be official SBU documents. He has offered the documents to the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office and parliament's human rights ombudsman. Our Ukraine deputy Mykola Tomenko brought some of the documents to Ukraine on 26 February, after having met with Kravchenko in Germany the day before. In his Deutsche Welle interview, Kravchenko said responsibility for the orders lies with SBU Chairman Ihor Smeshko and the head of the SBU directorate on intelligence, Oleh Synyanskyy. SBU Chairman Smeshko is reportedly aligned with the Social Democratic Party-united led by Viktor Medvedchuk.

The SBU and Kuchma were obviously taken off guard by Kravchenko breaking ranks with the SBU and publicizing these purported orders. Kuchma, who has been isolated in the West since the previous Kuchmagate episodes and who may have been hoping to use the Berlin visit to present a reformed image of himself, was visibly angered when the issue dominated his press conference with Schroeder at the end of his visit.

The SBU has issued a statement claiming that Kravchenko's allegations are "absurd in nature" and denying that the SBU has ever issued any such order or undertaken any actions, "including political meddling, that are banned according to Ukrainian laws." Kuchma also ridiculed the idea that the Ukrainian authorities, including the SBU, would attempt to shadow the opposition. "This is absolutely absurd," Kuchma said at the press conference.

However, it is notable that the Ukrainian authorities denied all of the allegations that surfaced during the first and second acts of Kuchmagate, and those denials were then contradicted by the revival of Soviet-era jamming of Western radio stations that broadcast the allegations. In the wake of the latest scandal, Deutsche Welle's Ukrainian FM rebroadcaster, Radio Kontynent, issued a statement claiming that the station was jammed on 19 February through the use of "methods that were used in Soviet times" when it aired Kravchenko's interview.

Kravchenko's allegations, if true, would not come as a surprise. Western NGOs working in Ukraine have claimed that they are routinely followed by the SBU. The International Republican Institute told the "Kyiv Post" in January that its staff believed they were being tailed as they traveled around Ukraine and suspected their telephones were tapped. During elections, Ukrainian drivers and interpreters used by foreign OSCE observers, who are officially invited to Ukraine, are regularly questioned as to whom the observers meet and what they talk about. Western intelligence services have also noticed that SBU officers working out of embassies abroad have begun to collect information on members of the Ukrainian diaspora who make a habit of criticizing the present leadership in Ukraine.

Since Kuchma was re-elected in 1999, Ukrainian oppositionists and former diplomats have also complained that they are followed by the SBU and their telephones are tapped. Parliamentary deputies have found listening devices in their offices. When Ukrainian parliamentarians went to Prague to meet Melnychenko in late 2000, they were followed and upon returning to Ukraine their video interview was destroyed by Customs, even though their official status exempted them from undergoing customs control.

Prior to, and during, mass anti-Kuchma demonstrations in 2000-03 the opposition and student members were regularly approached, warned, and interrogated by the SBU and Interior Ministry. Kravchenko told Deutsche Welle that all state institutions are being used to "compromise the opposition and to obtain information about it."

Bohdan Sokolovskyi, a former adviser to the Ukrainian embassies in the United States and Germany, partially confirmed Kravchenko's allegations in an interview with "Ukrayinska pravda." He said that while serving as a diplomat in those countries, he was followed by individuals he believes were SBU agents. Sokolovskyi characterized Kravchenko, whom he knew while serving in Germany, as "without doubt a conscientious and patriotically inclined Ukrainian citizen." After this interview he was released from his duties by the Foreign Ministry.

Ironically, the latest development in the Kuchmagate saga coincides with the purported promulgation on 18 February of an as-yet-unpublished presidential decree that Kuchma has described as ensuring the "de-KGB-ization" of Ukrainian state structures through the removal of SBU officers. This step, according to Kuchma, will contribute to the process of democratization in Ukraine.

It is, however, widely believed to be routine practice for such decrees to be ignored or even countermanded by secret instructions (such as the "temnyky" through which the presidential administration controls state and private television coverage) or Soviet-style "telephone law." The scale of the deception can be seen when secret instructions issued by the presidential administration to undermine the opposition or media freedom are leaked. Only after complaints are made are decrees issued to investigate the very same infringements that the leaked instructions ordered. If Kravchenko's claims pan out, he has revealed the degree of legal nihilism that pervades the very top of the Ukrainian leadership.

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

AFGHAN INTERIOR MINISTRY TO STEP UP MEASURES AGAINST DRUGS...
Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali has said his ministry will step up its fight against illegal drugs, Afghanistan Television reported on 26 February. The fight against illicit narcotics is high on the agenda of the Afghan Transitional Administration, as the increase in opium production is one of the major factors contributing to insecurity in Afghanistan, Jalali said. Referring to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime "Afghanistan Farmers' Intention Survey 2003/2004," Jalali said poppy cultivation in the country increased in 2003 compared to the year before and, if measures are not taken, will rise again in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004). The ministry's new strategy involves the destruction of poppy plantations and laboratories and more effective measures against drug trafficking, Jalali explained. AT

...AS EASTERN AFGHANISTAN BECOMES THE TESTING GROUND FOR THE NEW STRATEGY
At a meeting held on 26 February in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan's Counternarcotics Directorate (CND) Director Mirwais Yasini stressed the need to destroy opium-poppy plantations in eastern Afghan provinces, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported. Yasini said the CND has prepared a strategy for the destruction of opium poppies in eastern Afghanistan that takes into account the financial problems of farmers. He did not, however, say if farmers will be compensated. Interior Minister Jalali on 26 February said paying farmers to stop cultivating poppies was an unsuccessful experience, Afghanistan Television reported. Yasini added that he has held talks with governors of Konar, Laghman, Nangarhar, and Nuristan provinces regarding the CND strategy. A CND commission has determined that two-thirds of the irrigated land in Nangarhar, Konar, and Laghman provinces is producing opium poppies. AT

TALIBAN SPOKESMAN DENIES REQUESTING NEGOTIATIONS WITH KABUL...
Abdul Latif Hakim, purporting to speak on behalf of the ousted Taliban regime, denied claims that former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil has contacted the Afghan Transitional Administration, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 26 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). Hakim said that Mutawakkil was a founder of the original Taliban movement and that the neo-Taliban will not hold negotiations with the United States or the Afghan authorities who have an "illicit relationship" with Washington. Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai said in an interview with a Pakistani television station that he has received a "nice letter" from Mutawakkil and is considering meeting with him. Mutawakkil was released from U.S. detention in October and has reportedly been under surveillance since then in Kandahar. AT

...AS KARZAI SAYS MANY FORMER TALIBAN ARE APPROACHING HIS ADMINISTRATION
Afghan leader Karzai said on 26 February that people "would be surprised" if he disclosed the number of approaches his government receives from former members of the Taliban "on a daily basis," "The New York Times," reported on 27 February. "All those Taliban who are not involved with Al-Qaeda or terrorism, or who have not committed terrorism in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world, are free to return to their country and live a normal life," Karzai added. He also said that terrorism and the Taliban are defeated and "are gone." However, since 14 February, nine Afghan aid workers have been killed by assailants "apparently opposed" to Karzai's government, the New York daily noted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 26 February 2004). AT

NEO-TALIBAN IDENTIFY THEIR SPOKESMAN
In a statement faxed to a Tehran-based radio station, the neo-Taliban have written that Saif al-Adel does not speak on behalf of the movement, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 26 February. The statement names Hamed Agha as the movement's only authorized spokesman. In some instances, various individuals have spoken name of the Taliban or the Islamic Movement, and sometimes in contradictory terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). AT

CORRECTION:
An item titled "Five Afghan Aid Workers Killed" in the 26 February issue of "RFE/RL Newsline" incorrectly identified the province where the incident took place. It happened in Kabul Province.

IRANIAN STATE AGENCIES TRADE ACCUSATIONS OVER ELECTION REPORTING
An anonymous official from the state radio and television broadcaster the Voice and Vision of Iran on 24 February protested the Interior Ministry's treatment of its correspondents, Fars News Agency reported. The official also decried Interior Ministry officials' refusal to grant interviews unless they were broadcast live, rather than with "a few minutes delay." On 23 February, Interior Ministry officials refused to announce the final results of recent parliamentary elections on the grounds that the Voice and Vision of Iran only read out the first 30 names in Tehran, Fars News Agency reported. President Mohammad Khatami on 22 February ordered an investigation into the Voice and Vision of Iran's reporting of the election results, ISNA reported. BS

IRAN SIGNS GAS DEAL WITH FRANCE AND MALAYSIA...
Officials from the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), France's Total, and Malaysia's Petronas on 25 February signed an agreement to create a company that will build a liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) plant and an export facility, state television reported. NIOC will hold a 50 percent stake in the company, Total 30 percent, and Petronas 20 percent. The LNG is expected to be on the market in five years, and the project is expected to produce 8 million tons of LNG annually. The plant and export facility will cost at least $2 billion, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 26 February. An anonymous Total spokesman could not say when the negotiations for the overall project will be concluded. BS

...AND REFUSES TO DISCOUNT TURKISH GAS
Turkey's Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Hilmi Guler announced on 26 February that he will visit Tehran on 29 February to discuss a reduction in the price of gas imported from Iran, IRNA reported. He added that the gas agreement between Iran and Turkey includes a clause that permits changing prices. Guler said that Iranian gas is currently more expensive than the gas imported from Russia. National Iranian Gas Export Company Managing Director Rokneddin Javadi said this proposal goes against the two countries' previous agreement, adding that "we have rejected that proposal," "Turkish Daily News" reported on 26 February. IRNA on 25 February cited Javadi as saying that the Turkish request is being considered. On 23 February, IRNA cited Javadi's assertion that Ankara is trying to drive the gas price downward. He accused Ankara of trying to drive a wedge between Iran and Russia. BS

LEADING IRAQI CLERIC COMMENTS ON UN REPORT...
Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on 26 February posted a comment on the recent UN elections assessment (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 February 2004) on his website (http://www.sistani.org). Al-Sistani said that several points in the UN assessment are "compatible" with his own views. He demanded "clear guarantees" in the form of a UN Security Council resolution that elections will be held on a fixed date to ensure that there are no further delays. "The religious authority also demands that the unelected authority to which power will be handed over on 30 June, should be an interim administration with clear and specific authorities to prepare the country for free and fair elections. This administration, which will run the affairs of the country during the transitional period, should not have the power to make important decisions that would be binding on the government that will be formed by the elected council," the statement said. KR

...AND EXPRESSES CONCERN ON TRANSFER OF POWER
Al-Sistani added in his 26 February statement that there is a growing concern that the parties involved in arranging the transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition to the Iraqi people "will not be able to reach in the remaining period a mechanism that would enjoy the support of the broadest sectors of the Iraqi people" as required by UN resolutions. He noted that there is further concern that "these parties will be entangled in ethnic, sectarian, and political quotas," which al-Sistani himself "sought to overcome by calling for adopting a mechanism for elections." KR

IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL DELEGATION VISITS AL-SISTANI
Iraqi Governing Council member Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum led a delegation of five council members and Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum in a meeting with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Al-Najaf on 26 February, Voice of the Mujahedin reported. The purpose of the visit was to hear al-Sistani's views on the general political situation in Iraq, elections, and the transfer of power. The radio reported that the members of the delegation refused to comment to reporters after the meeting. Meanwhile, members of the Iraqi Governing Council continue to debate a draft Transitional Administrative Law. The deadline for the law is set for 28 March, but council member Mahmud Uthman said the deadline might not be met, AP reported on 27 February. Some highly contentious issues are still under debate, including the role of Islam, Kurdish autonomy, and the shape of the interim body that takes power in June. KR

KURDISH ANSAR MEMBER CLAIMS LINKS TO AL-QAEDA
A Kurdish member of the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam has acknowledged links to Al-Qaeda, Al-Jazeera television reported on 25 February. The station broadcast a videotaped statement by Hoshyar Salih Hama Arif, who is now in coalition custody, in which he says: "We know for sure that the United States is technologically superior to us.... We do not care about their strength. [Jihad] is the best way for us to win the best reward in the hereafter. At the beginning, we tried to obscure our relationship with Al-Qaeda to dissociate ourselves from the U.S. list of wanted persons. However, when the Americans attacked us, we became no longer fearful of showing our association with Al-Qaeda." KR

FORMER BRITISH MINISTER SAYS GOVERNMENT SPIED ON KOFI ANNAN
A former member of U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet told BBC Radio 4's "Today" program that British intelligence agencies bugged the offices of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the run-up to the war in Iraq, international media reported on 26 February. Clare Short, the former U.K. international development secretary, said she knew British agencies had spied on Annan, "The Guardian" reported. "I know, I have seen transcripts of Kofi Annan's conversations." "Indeed, I have had conversations with Kofi in the run-up to war thinking 'Oh dear, there will be a transcript of this and people will see what he and I are saying,'" Short said. She appeared unsure as to whether such spying activities were legal. She resigned from Blair's cabinet on 12 May to protest the war in Iraq. KR

LARGEST JAPANESE CONTINGENT THUS FAR ENTERS IRAQ
A convoy of Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces crossed into Iraq from Kuwait on 27 February to join their contingent in Al-Samawah, Reuters reported. Some 130 soldiers traveled in a convoy of 30 military vehicles and were expected to link up with about 100 other Japanese soldiers at their base later that day. "It is a great pleasure for us to be here today. I am very happy," Colonel Koichiro Bansho, the contingent's commanding officer, told reporters at the border crossing. The Japanese government plans ultimately to have some 1,000 troops in Al-Samawah. The soldiers will focus on humanitarian projects in Iraq. KR

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