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Newsline - March 2, 2004

Media and analysts were caught short by President Vladimir Putin's surprise 1 March nomination of Russian envoy to the EU Mikhail Fradkov as the next prime minister, Russian media reported on 2 March. In the flurry of press reports about Fradkov following Putin's announcement, the term "technocrat" was often used. Writing on, Center for Political Technologies Deputy Director Aleksei Makarkin suggested that one of the reasons Putin picked a "technocrat" was that the president is not interested in creating a "diarchy or making the prime minister a co-ruler." Fradkov, according to Makarkin, cannot be considered a possible successor to Putin. He also can serve the function of "accepting responsibility for a series of unpopular reforms," Makarkin wrote. Ekspertiz foundation head Mark Urnov predicted that Fradkov will serve only the first half of Putin's second term, assuming -- as widely expected -- that Putin wins the 14 March presidential election. After that, "it will be necessary to declare a successor," Urnov said, according to on 2 March. JAC

Also, because he is not an obvious "silovik," Prime Minister-designate Fradkov's appointment is not likely to frighten foreign investors, Makarkin argued on on 2 March. Makarkin also noted that since 2000 Fradkov's career has been connected with that of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. When Ivanov was Security Council secretary, Fradkov was his first deputy. Later, Ivanov recommended him to head the Federal Tax Police. However, in an interview with RFE/RL's Moscow bureau, former Economy Minister Yevgenii Yasin commented that "in no way was Fradkov a silovik." "He [is] an experienced specialist on international economic relations," Yasin said. "But I personally have never seen him come up with ideas, generate initiatives, and so on and so forth. And evidently that is not required from him." Unified Energy System (EES) head Anatolii Chubais called Fradkov a professional of high standing with formidable experience. JAC

In an interview with RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 1 March, former Economy Minister Yasin commented that he does not expect any kind of change in the situation of jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii with the advent of a new government. Earlier, on at least two occasions, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov spoke out against the criminal case against Khodorkovskii (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 November 2003). "I think that the position of the former prime minister did not help him, and [Fradkov] will not occupy some kind of independent stance on this question," Yasin said. State Duma Deputy Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin (Motherland) predicted that Fradkov will pursue an "antioligarch" policy. In an interview with, Foundation for Effective Politics head Gleb Pavlovskii said that "if you can believe the press," Fradkov raised the question of investigating Yukos a long time ago and participated personally in the investigations into the company's activities. JAC

Foundation for Effective Politics head Pavlovskii said on 1 March that the nomination of Fradkov sends a "friendly signal" to the EU, Interfax reported. EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin said the organization welcomes Fradkov's appointment because "he will bring a close understanding of EU policymaking processes to the Russian government during an important time in EU-Russian relations," Interfax reported. Russia and the EU have been conducting intense negotiations on the impact on Russia of the EU's impending enlargement. Meanwhile, in an interview with "Ekspert," No. 7, Aleksandr Rahr, author of "A German In The Kremlin," commented that relations between the EU and Russia have cooled recently because of overly high initial expectations and a lack of mutual understanding. Rahr noted that "for the average European, Russia is a distant, marginal nation," while "Russia has no clear impression of what the EU really is." According to Rahr, President Putin has "splendid" relationships with German Chancellor Gerhard Schoeder, French President Jacques Chirac, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The problems of Russian foreign policy "start at the second or third level of bureaucracy, at the level of ordinary officials in Brussels. The Kremlin doesn't know how to work with them," Rahr said. JAC

The Foreign Ministry confirmed on 1 March that the seven Russian citizens who were captured by the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition during operations in Afghanistan and who were subsequently held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been transferred to Russian custody, Interfax reported. The detainees from Guantanamo were brought to Moscow on 28 February. Deputy Prosecutor-General for the Southern Federal District Sergei Fridinskii told Interfax that all seven suspects have been charged with violations of Russia's Criminal Code, including illegally crossing international borders, mercenary activities, and participation in criminal groups. According to the mother of one of the suspects, they are being held in a prison in Pyatigorsk in Stavropol Krai. Almost two years ago, Russia and the United States reached an agreement to accelerate the extradition of Russian citizens detained at Guantanamo (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 June 2002). Russia raised the issue of the detainees again after the release of the U.S. State Department's recent human rights report (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). JAC

The Supreme Court ruled on 1 March that the Central Election Commission (TsIK) should reconsider a complaint filed by presidential candidate Irina Khakamada regarding federal television stations' live broadcast of a 12 February speech by President Putin to his campaign workers, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 23 February 2004). Khakamada's lawyer, Daniil Katkov, said his client is seeking recognition that the broadcasts violated election law. TsIK Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov on 13 February acknowledged that "certain state television channels slightly overdid it" with their coverage of Putin's speech, ITAR-TASS reported. Also on 1 March, Khakamada sent a declaration to the Prosecutor-General's Office asking that they open a criminal investigation into allegations that Federation Council Chairman and fellow presidential candidate Sergei Mironov slandered her during a recent televised campaign debate, RIA-Novosti reported. Mironov accused Khakamada of accepting campaign financing from "criminals" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004). JAC

The Moscow Arbitration Court on 1 March ruled in favor of a suit by two Sibneft subsidiaries to nullify a Yukos share emission that was used to acquire a major stake in Sibneft as part of the two companies' aborted merger, Russian media reported. Yukos used the share emission to boost its stake in Sibneft to 92 percent as the first step in the merger, which was formally called off last month. Following the ruling, Yukos maintains a blocking share of 35 percent of Sibneft, but control of the company reverts to the previous shareholders, headed by Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich, reported. Yukos lawyers said they will appeal the decision. Analysts quoted by "The Moscow Times" on 2 March speculated that Sibneft will attempt to purchase Yukos's remaining 35 percent stake in the company. Troika Dialog research head James Fenkner speculated that the decision could pave the way for Abramovich to attempt to takeover Yukos "if tax liabilities come up again for Yukos in the future." RC

President Putin on 1 March congratulated the country's arms producers and exporters for achieving $5.6 billion in foreign sales in 2003, the fourth consecutive post-Soviet arms-sales record, Interfax reported. Speaking from the Kremlin, Putin said the figures exceeded government forecasts by 26 percent. Sales of combat aircraft -- mainly Sukhoi fighter jets -- made up more than half of the 2003 total. Putin said that Russian weapons systems are "superior in terms of cost-effectiveness," "The Moscow Times" reported on 2 March. "While strictly observing the nonproliferation regime, we must and will defend our economic interests," he added. He said that the government will move this year to increase the number of firms allowed to sell their products abroad directly, without going through the state arms exporter Rosoboroneksport. Russia sold weapons to 52 countries in 2003. RC

Speaking to senior government officials in the Kremlin on 1 March, President Putin ordered the military to determine the causes of a series of recent missile-launch failures "as soon as possible," and ordered the Defense Ministry to repeat the exercises during which the failures occurred, "Vremya novostei" reported on 2 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18, 19, and 20 February and 1 March 2004). During the meeting, acting Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that "many other deficiencies" were uncovered during the recent exercises, but he did not elaborate. He said that Russian Navy commander Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov will travel to the Northern Fleet on 4 March to oversee the work of the commission investigating the missile failures. The daily commented that because of the launch failures "the entire world now doubts the readiness of our missiles." RC

"Forbes" magazine this month released its annual list of the world's billionaires, with Russia's representation increasing from 17 in 2003 to 25 this year, Russian and international media reported on 1 March. Jailed former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii remains the richest person in Russia, at No. 16 on the "Forbes" list with an estimated worth of $15 billion. Fellow Yukos shareholders Leonid Nevzlin, Mikhail Brudno, Vladimir Dubov, Platon Lebedev, and Vasilii Shaknovskii -- all of whom have faced criminal fraud or tax-evasion charges since July -- also made the 2004 list. Leading Sibneft shareholder Abramovich ranked No. 25, followed by Alfa-Group head Mikhail Fridman (73), Interros head Vladimir Potanin (85), and Norilsk Nickel General Director Mikhail Prokhorov (90). Moscow has more billionaires than any city in the world with 23, except for New York (31). "Forbes Russia" Editor Paul Klebnikov told "The Moscow Times" that because Russian company shares continue to be "massively undervalued," the number of Russian billionaires will likely continue to rise. RC

Novosibirsk Deputy Mayor Valerii Maryasov was shot dead in the elevator of his apartment building on the morning of 2 March, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported. Zheleznodorozhnyi Raion prosecutor Yurii Burda said that although investigators have only begun working on the case, they suspect the killing was a professional, contract murder connected with Maryasov's work, reported. Maryasov has served as head of the city's Land and Property Department since 2001. His predecessor in the post, Novosibirsk Deputy Mayor Igor Belyakov, was shot dead in his car as he drove to work on 7 August 2001, and that case remains unsolved. Novosibirsk will hold a mayoral election on 14 March, reported. RC

Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev was killed in an exchange of fire with Russian border guards near the Daghestan village of Bezhta on 28 February, a senior border-guard official in Daghestan said on 1 March, Russian media reported. An FSB official and Deputy Prosecutor-General Fridinskii confirmed later the same day that the body has been definitively identified as that of Gelaev by two of his former fighters, who were captured during an ill-fated incursion into Daghestan in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January 2004 ). LF

A group calling itself Gazoton Murdash has sent three e-mail messages to the Chechen website claiming responsibility for the 6 February suicide bombing in the Moscow subway that killed at least 40 people, Reuters reported on 1 March. The signatory to the e-mails said the bombing was carried out in retaliation for the execution by Russian forces of dozens of Chechen civilians in an operation in the Grozny suburb of Aldy four years earlier. An investigation at the time concluded that Russian forces were not responsible for those killings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2000). LF

Andranik Markarian announced on 1 March that he will send ministers and other senior officials to tour rural areas to brief voters on the government's achievements and assess what socioeconomic improvements are needed, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Markarian's announcement came in response to meetings convened last week by the opposition Artarutiun bloc in villages near Yerevan at which speakers called for mass protests to force the peaceful ouster of President Robert Kocharian and Markarian's coalition government (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 27 February 2004). LF

Ilham Aliyev advised Azerbaijani journalists on 28 February not to pay too much attention to the critical assessment of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan contained in the U.S. State Department's annual evaluation of human rights worldwide, Interfax and Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). Aliyev implied that the U.S. criticisms are unfounded. Mubariz Gurbanly, who is deputy executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, similarly rejected the report as giving a biased picture of the 15 October presidential ballot and the subsequent violent clashes between police and opposition supporters, Turan reported on 27 February. But Fuad Mustafaev, who is deputy chairman of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was quoted by on 2 March as saying the report accurately depicts the situation in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the presidential election. He said the Azerbaijani authorities should see the report as both a "serious warning" and as a call for radical improvement. LF

A Baku district court ruled on 1 March that the congregation of the historic Djuma mosque in Baku's old town must vacate the building immediately, Turan and Reuters reported. The congregation has used the mosque for the past 10 years, and its chairman, Nadjaf Allakhverdiev, said it will appeal the decision. Observers believe that the authorities' primary target is the mosque's popular young imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who was arrested on 1 December for his alleged role in the clashes in Baku between police and opposition supporters in the wake of the 15 October presidential election (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 January 2004). LF

National Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili again denied on 1 March that Georgian troops are preparing a military intervention in the Adjar Autonomous Republic, Caucasus Press reported. Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze claimed last week that such preparations were under way (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). On 29 February, Abashidze flew to Moscow where he met on 1 March with Mayor Yurii Luzhkov to discuss economic cooperation. Merabishvili said it would have been "correct and normal" for Abashidze to have informed the central Georgian government of his planned trip to Moscow, but that he had not done so. LF

A contingent of 74 Georgian service personnel -- engineers, sappers, and medical personnel -- flew home to Tbilisi on 2 March after a six-month tour of duty with the international stabilization force in Iraq, Georgian media reported. But a further 217 Georgian service personnel who were supposed to replace them in Tikrit are unable to leave Georgia because of a lack of forms to apply for identification documents, Chief of the General Staff Major General Givi Iukuridze told Caucasus Press on 2 March. Iukuridze said no new date for the peacekeepers' deployment to Iraq has been set. The troops were originally scheduled to leave for Iraq last month, but unnamed Defense Ministry officials said the departure was delayed because the United States had not made transport aircraft available (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). On 22 February, Interfax quoted a Georgian Defense Ministry official as saying that the transport and financial problems that had delayed the departure of the relief contingent have been solved. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed several cooperation accords and partnership agreements on 1 March in the course of Aliyev's first official visit to Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev said that sound political and economic relations between the two countries serve to guarantee peace and security in the Caspian region. Aliyev added that "today no one has any doubt about the principle for dividing the Caspian," Kazinform reported. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia signed a trilateral agreement on 14 May to demarcate their sections of the Caspian seabed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 May 2003). Nazarbaev also said Kazakhstan is ready to provide assistance for a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict. In October 1991, Nazarbaev and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin attempted without success to broker a cease-fire in the Karabakh fighting. DK

President Nazarbaev on 1 March expressed his support for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline as an export route for his country's oil, Kazinform reported. "I am convinced that Kazakh oil will flow through this pipeline," Nazarbaev was quoted as saying. Nazarbaev also came out in favor of creating a transportation hub between the Kazakh port of Aqtau and Baku, giving Kazakhstan "alternative access to international markets through the Caucasus." Kazakhstan currently exports the bulk of its oil abroad through a pipeline to the Russian port of Novorossiisk. But Russia and Kazakhstan have sparred over tariffs, with acting Russian Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko complaining as recently as 27 February that "Russia has not received the financial return that it counted on," RBK reported. Kazakh oil exports are poised to increase significantly as major projects come on line, and additional export routes would increase Astana's leverage. The issue is also rife with geopolitical implications. As the Russian Internet newspaper commented on 1 March, "The Kazakh president's decision [in favor of BTC] means that BTC will fill up with Kazakh oil, and the American-sponsored project for Caspian oil to bypass Russia is nearing completion." Currently 55 percent completed, BTC is scheduled to begin transporting Azerbaijani oil in the early summer of 2005. DK

Thirteen members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (KPK) have split off to form a new party they plan to call the Communist Party of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KPRK), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 1 March. "We worked long and hard to preserve the unity of the party, but the methods that KPK leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin uses did not allow us to find a consensus," former KPK Central Committee Second Secretary Vladislav Kosarev announced at a 1 March press conference. According to Kosarev, he and his supporters decided to strike out on their own in December, after Abdildin insisted on making Tolen Tokhtasyn, formerly a leader in the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, a member of the KPK Central Committee. Kazinform reported on 1 March that the dissident communists could take with them 25,000 of the KPK's 56,000 members. DK

The Kyrgyz Health Ministry has released a report showing rising birthrates and stable life expectancy in Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzinfo reported on 1 March. According to the report, there were 20.9 births per 1,000 people in 2003, up from 20.2 in 2002 and 19.8 in 2001. Life expectancy held steady at 68.2 years, virtually unchanged from 68.1 years in 2002. The death rate also remained stable at 7.1 per 1,000 in 2003, the same as in 2002. Cardiovascular diseases were the leading killers among adults, accounting for 47.1 percent of all deaths. The primary causes of infant mortality are respiratory infections (45 percent) and intestinal infections (25 percent), Akipress reported on 24 April. DK

Members of the Taraqqiyot (Progress) Party, which was established three years ago, have sent an open letter to President Imomali Rakhmonov, the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Justice Ministry, and the UN and OSCE offices in Dushanbe protesting the Justice Ministry's refusal to register the party and demanding that it do so, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 1 March. The statement says the party is "not a group of extremists" and that the party's aims and statutes do not violate the Tajik Constitution. It points out that all documents necessary for registration were submitted to the Justice Ministry on 18 December, but the ministry failed to approve or reject the request within the statutory one-month period (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2004). It says the party's members are ready to begin a hunger strike to demand its registration. Taraqqiyot was founded in May 2001 on the basis of the so-called Tehran faction of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan. Founding member Azam Afzali said at that time that Taraqqiyot intended to function as a "constructive opposition" to the present Tajik leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 May 2001). LF

The Uzbek government has extended by one month a 1 March deadline for foreign NGOs in Uzbekistan to register with the Justice Ministry, the UN news agency IRIN reported on 1 March. "The deadline for re-registration has been extended for one month because some organizations simply couldn't technically prepare some documents," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilkhom Zakirov said. The Uzbek government announced on 19 February that foreign NGOs, which had previously registered with the Foreign Ministry, would have to reregister with the Justice Ministry by 1 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). The move was widely viewed as an attempt to tighten control over foreign NGOs working in the country. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has signed a decree imposing value-added tax (VAT) on Russian exports to Belarus, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 1 March. Until now, Russia has used the country-of-origin principle in collecting VAT in trade with Belarus -- meaning that Russian exporters to Belarus paid VAT to the Russian budget -- while applying the country-of-destination principle in trade with all other countries. Lukashenka's decree obliges Russian exporters to pay an 18 percent VAT to the Belarusian budget. Some observers believe Lukashenka's decree is intended to make up for the additional sum Belarus will have to pay to Gazprom in connection with an anticipated increase in the price for Russian gas. JM

A Minsk district court on 1 March awarded businessman Syarhey Atroshchanka some $7,000 in damages in a libel case against the independent daily "Narodnaya volya," Belapan reported. Last November, the newspaper published an interview with Atroshchanka in which he described Belarus's business environment as "excellent." A week later "Narodnaya volya" featured an article in which prominent business leaders and analysts commented on Atroshchanka's interview. Atroshchanka, who runs a lingerie factory and publishes the newspaper "Obozrevatel," found the article to be libelous. "Narodnaya volya" is planning to appeal the verdict before the Minsk City Court. JM

President Leonid Kuchma on 1 March vetoed a bill of amendments to "nearly all tax laws," claiming that it is a "classical example of legal ignorance in tax legislation," Interfax reported. In particular, the bill, which was passed by the Verkhovna Rada on 5 February, provided for levying VAT taxes on the sale of medicines and medical equipment, periodicals and newspapers, books (except for those published in the Ukrainian language), and housing. "VAT is the only tax we have no progress on," Kuchma said at a government meeting during which he criticized the bill. "VAT has lost its budget-filling capacity." The bill was supported by the Cabinet of Ministers but opposed by the State Tax Administration. JM

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary-General Jan Kubis told journalists in Kyiv on 2 March that the OSCE will conduct long-term monitoring of the upcoming presidential election campaign in Ukraine, Interfax reported. Kubis's comments came after his meeting with Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleh Shamshur. Kubis added that OSCE observers will be in Ukraine "many months" prior to the election date. JM

Three representatives of the United People's Party of Estonia met with the council of the alliance For Human Rights in a United Latvia over the weekend in Riga and decided to create a new association called Russians of the European Union, or Russian League, BNS reported on 1 March. The meeting issued a document stating that there is no political force in Western Europe capable of defending the rights of the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations that will soon be residents of the European Union. The document said the league strives to become "a pan-European party of Russian culture, economy, and social solidarity," and that gaining "representation in the European Parliament will be the first step toward fulfillment of that goal." The meeting formed a working group that will launch efforts to create the new political force, with the next meeting between the parties to be held in Tallinn later this month. SG

Latvia was listed in the U.S. State Department's annual "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report" released on 1 March as a country of "primary concern" as a money-laundering center. "Latvia's role as a regional financial center, its large number of commercial banks and those banks' sizeable nonresident deposit base continue to pose significant money laundering risks in Latvia, even as Latvian financial institutions, regulators, and law enforcement and judicial authorities seek tighter adherence to legislative norms, regulations and "best practices" designed to fight financial crime," the report stated ( The U.S. Embassy in Riga said in a 1 March press release that Latvia's move on the list came from a country of "primary concern" from one of "concerned" came after "thorough investigation and consultation with respective Latvian services." U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Brian Carlson said the United States is generally satisfied with Latvia's cooperation in money-laundering cases, adding that the Latvian Finance and Capital Market Commission "takes its responsibilities against money laundering seriously." SG

Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas told journalists on 1 March that the parliament board has decided to begin the impeachment hearings against President Rolandas Paksas on 8 March, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. After meeting with Paulauskas, Chairman of the Lithuanian Supreme Court Vytautas Greicius announced that he accepted the offer to preside over the impeachment process and has proposed another Supreme Court judge, Romualdas Urbaitis, to serve as his proxy. The parliament is expected to formally approve the presiding judges and the starting date for the impeachment process at an extraordinary session to be held on 5 March. Meanwhile, Paksas's request that parliament begin impeachment proceedings against its chairman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2004) was firmly rejected by the parliament's Law Department, which noted that the constitution only provides for the impeachment of parliament deputies and not its chairman. The chairman can be removed only by a no-confidence vote by parliament that the president is not entitled to request. The Prosecutor-General's Office also announced on 1 March that Paulauskas did not disclose any classified information when he informed the heads of parliament factions in October about a State Security Department report about a potential threat to national security. SG

Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk said on 1 March that his party will back only three bills -- on pre-retirement benefits, old-age and disability pension indexation, and reorganization of the Farmer Social Security Fund -- from an austerity package prepared by Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004), PAP reported. Tusk said the Civic Platform is disappointed with the Hausner package because of "its actual resignation from plans to curb privileges of people in power and cut state administration costs, and a surprise plan to dramatically raise taxes." The success of the entire Hausner austerity plan seems to hinge on backing from the Federative Parliamentary Club (15 lawmakers) and 16 independent deputies in the 460-seat Sejm. The ruling Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union coalition controls 207 votes in the Sejm, 24 votes shy of the required majority. According to a recent poll by the CBOS polling agency, 62 percent of Poles want Leszek Miller's cabinet to resign if it fails to pass the Hausner plan. JM

The Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) -- a junior coalition member of Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla's cabinet -- is demanding veto powers over all future government appointments and personnel issues, the daily "Pravo" reported on 2 March. The KDU-CSL opposed the recent appointment of Pavel Telicka as Czech representative on the European Commission, citing Telicka's former membership in the Czechoslovak Communist Party. KDU-CSL Chairman Miroslav Kalousek said issues pertaining to appointments by the government cannot be resolved by a majority vote in the cabinet. The Social Democratic Party (CSSD) has a majority in the current government. The CSSD and the coalition's other junior member -- the Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) -- both oppose granting veto powers to the KDU-CSL on these issues. MS

Prosecutor-General Dobroslav Trnka announced on 1 March after meeting with Interior Minister Vladimir Palko that criminal proceedings will be launched against members of the Romany Parliament, TASR and CTK reported. Interior Ministry spokesman Boris Azaltovic said the leaders of the organization will be charged with inciting civil unrest -- an offense that carries a sentence of up to two years in prison. The decision was made following Romany Parliament Chairman Ladislav Fizik's appeal last week to members of the Romany minority to block border-crossing points and highways in protest against the continued deployment of police and military forces in eastern Slovakia in the wake of recent rioting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004). MS

The Budapest-based European Center for Roma Rights (ERRC), the Slovak Center for Roma Rights (CPR), and Amnesty International demanded on 1 March that Prosecutor-General Trnka launch an investigation into police behavior during last week's riots in Trebisov, eastern Slovakia, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2004). CPR member Edmund Muller said police acted with brutality not seen recently against the Romany minority except in Kosova. Muller also said police broke into flats and beat residents, and that Roma who were detained were subjected to electric shocks. The Brussels-based European Roma Information Office (ERIO) on 1 March urged the Slovak government to withdraw police and military forces deployed after last week's clashes. The ERIO also proposed that the European Commission and the European Parliament dispatch a mission to Slovakia to monitor the situation and help settle the dispute over reduced social benefits. MS

People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) Chairman Vladimir Meciar announced on 1 March that his formation has gathered sufficient support to initiate a no-confidence motion in Deputy Prime Minster and Finance Minister Ivan Miklos, TASR and CTK reported. Meciar said the motion will be supported by all 26 lawmakers representing the LS-HZDS. Parliamentarians representing the Smer (Direction) party and the Slovak Communist Party are also likely to back the motion, according to TASR, which reported that the Free Forum -- which split late last year from the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) -- might also support it. Free Forum leader Ivan Simko later said his party will not itself submit a no-confidence motion, but might support one submitted by other parties. In order to succeed, the no-confidence motion must enlist the support of a simple majority among all 150 Slovak lawmakers. MS

Police on 1 March recommended that Vitazoslav Moric, a former chairman of the extremist Slovak National Party, and his former colleague Viliam Ciklamini be charged with illegally attempting to export to North Korea via Ukraine high-technology systems allegedly intended for use by military airports, CTK and TASR reported. The case dates back to 1998, when Moric was director general of the Slovak Armex company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 June 2003). If charged, Moric and Ciklamini could each face three to eight years in prison. MS

Parliament on 1 March approved by a vote of 182 in favor to 152 against the setting up of a commission to investigate the activities and finances during the previous FIDESZ-led administration of the state-owned companies Millenaris and Kisrokus 2000, and the Hungarian Development Bank and the National Image Center, "Nepszabadsag" reported. The commission will also investigate the current ruling coalition's claims that former Prime Minister Viktor Orban, former head of the prime-minister's office Istvan Stumpf, and former Youth and Sports Minister Tamas Deutsch, misused state-budget funds. FIDESZ announced after the vote that it will appeal to the Constitutional Court, as it considers the decision unconstitutional. MSZ

A planned meeting between Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy and his predecessor, current opposition FIDESZ Chairman Orban, took place on 1 March in the presence of journalists, Hungarian media reported the next day. Medgyessy said during the meeting that he intends to set up a Hungarian National Lobbying Council comprising the current prime minister and his predecessors, as well as prominent public personalities. The forum is to forge a common stance on important issues after Hungary joins the EU. Medgyessy and Orban agreed on the need to provide family benefits to ethnic Hungarians abroad. Orban said the cabinet should issue a statement in support of autonomy for the Transylvanian region inhabited by the Szeklers, and that the private Hungarian-language Sapienta University in Romania must be allotted more subsidies by the Hungarian government. In response, the prime minister said autonomy can have many forms and cited similar statements made by Bela Marko, leader of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania. Medgyessy also said that in view of the current budget cuts, no exception can be made for allocations to Sapienta University. MS

The Constitutional Court ruled on 1 March that the World Federation of Hungarians can begin collecting signatures to force a referendum on granting Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, "Nepszabadsag" and "Magyar Nemzet" reported. Miklos Patrubany, chairman of the federation, said the petition drive might be launched on 15 March, provided the National Election Commission approves the format of the signature sheets this week. MS

Serbian Prime Minister-designate Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) told the parliament on 2 March that "there is no alternative at the moment" to European integration for Serbia and Montenegro, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He said the Kosova question cannot be resolved without Belgrade's participation and that the solution lies in dividing the province into cantons or entities, in which local Serbs must have broad autonomy. He argued that Serbs indicted by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal should be tried in Serbia. Kostunica called for bringing the Serbian Constitution into line with the Constitutional Charter of Serbia and Montenegro and for ensuring that all new legislation meets EU requirements. He pledged to cut unspecified taxes that he said hinder production. Kostunica recently ruled out the dissolution of the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro, despite some clear indications from Podgorica that the Montenegrin leadership does not want to remain in a state with a Serbia dominated by nationalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 October, 12 December, and 19 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). PM

Serbian Prime Minister-designate Kostunica submitted to the parliament on 2 March a list of proposed members of a 19-member cabinet, including himself and Deputy Prime Minister-designate Miroljub Labus of the G-17 Plus party. Vojislav Vukcevic from the coalition of the Serbian Renewal Movement and the New Serbia party (SPO-NS) will head the new Diaspora Ministry; plans to set up a new ministry for Kosova appear to have been scrapped (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2004). Key cabinet appointments include Dragan Jocic (DSS) as interior minister, Zoran Stojkovic (DSS) as justice minister, Dragan Marsicanin (DSS) as economy minister, Predrag Bubalo (DSS) as foreign trade minister, Mladjan Dinkic (G-17 Plus) as finance minister, Velimir Ilic (SPO-NS) as capital investments minister, and Bojan Dimitrijevic (SPO-NS) as internal trade minister. Ten posts go to the DSS, five to G-17 Plus (including a Social Democrat on the G-17 electoral list), and four to the SPO-NS. There are no Serbian ministers of defense or foreign affairs, which are the prerogative of the joint government of Serbia and Montenegro. SPO-NS leader Vuk Draskovic is expected to replace Goran Svilanovic as foreign minister. PM

Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Jovan Manasievski said in Skopje on 1 March that Zagreb University experts have identified the body of President Boris Trajkovski through DNA tests using samples from Trajkovski's twin brother, Aleksandar, and their father, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. President Trajkovski died in a 26 February plane crash near Mostar in Herzegovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February and 1 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February 2004). Manasievski also said that Trajkovski's body will be flown back to Skopje after a memorial observance in Sarajevo on 3 March. Macedonian citizens will then have an opportunity to bid farewell to the president on 4 March. The funeral will take place the following day in Skopje's Butel cemetery, where Trajkovski will be buried along the Avenue of the Great. UB

Unnamed "Bosnian police sources" told Bosnian Federation Television (FTV) on 1 March that the French SFOR peacekeepers who acted as flight controllers are "completely responsible" for the 26 February plane crash in Herzegovina that took the lives of Macedonian President Trajkovski and eight other people, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service reported. The FTV broadcast noted that the radar normally used to monitor flights in the area had recently experienced major problems. The French air-traffic controllers, who allegedly returned to France immediately after the crash, spoke to the pilot in French rather than in English, as is required by international law, the broadcast added. FTV reported that the crash was not the result of pilot error or of a mechanical problem with the aircraft, which had been overhauled in Germany only one month earlier. Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski suggested in Mostar on 29 February that the main responsibility might lie with the French. PM

Prime Minister Adnan Terzic announced in Sarajevo on 1 March the appointment of Dragomir Dumic, who is a member of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), as the first defense minister for all of Bosnia, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12, 19, and 25 February 2004). His deputies will be Marina Pendes of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) and Enes Becirbasic of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA). Setting up a unified defense ministry and a single army is one of the preconditions Bosnia must meet before it can be admitted to NATO's Partnership for Peace program at the alliance's June summit in Istanbul. PM

In addition to the Republika Srpska, the Western Herzegovina Canton did not mark Bosnian Independence Day on 1 March, Hina reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004). The canton includes Siroki Brijeg, Grude, Posusje, and Ljubuski, and is a traditional stronghold of Croatian nationalism. Unnamed canton officials told the Croatian news agency that the matter of state holidays has not been finalized for all of Bosnia, and that the canton has its own holidays, among which Bosnian Independence Day is not included. Most Herzegovinian Croats supported Bosnian independence in the 1992 referendum after being urged to do so by the Roman Catholic Church, which has great influence in the region. PM

The Chamber of Deputies on 1 March rejected a motion submitted by the Greater Romania Party (PRM) to debate the issue of international adoptions, the private Antena 1 television channel reported. The issue of international adoption triggered recent criticism of Romania contained in a draft country report submitted to the European Parliament by its Foreign Affairs Committee. The PRM accused the cabinet headed by Adrian Nastase of being responsible for the sale of Romanian children abroad and claimed that Internet websites offer prepubescent Romanian virgins for sale for $30,000 each. The motion was rejected by a vote of 182 votes against -- all cast by the ruling Social Democratic Party -- to 70 in favor -- all cast by the PRM. There were 30 abstentions by deputies representing the National Liberal Party, the Democratic Party, and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania. MS

Romanian border police on 28 February denied Hungarian journalist Zsolt Bayer permission to enter Romania at the Bors border crossing, Romanian and Hungarian media reported on 1 March. The daily "Ziua" on 2 March cited Foreign Ministry spokesman Cosmin Dobran as saying without elaborating that the measure was "not accidental." According to "Ziua," Bayer, who works for the pro-FIDESZ daily "Magyar Nemzet," is considered a "problematic journalist" in Hungary due to his often-controversial positions. "Ziua" reported that Bayer is known to be a supporter of the Szekler National Council and to have recently published a letter addressed to the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) leadership in which he was highly critical of the UDMR. The Hungarian daily "Nepszabadsag" on 1 March quoted Bayer as telling a forum of Hungarian Transylvanians on 31 May 2003 that they must act against the "Byzantine, idiotic Romanian chauvinism and the stupid Romanian policemen." MS

The opposition Our Moldova alliance on 1 March called on parties of the "center-left and the center-right" to set up a joint electoral bloc ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections, Flux reported. The alliance said the current year is a decisive one for "defining the destiny of the Moldovan Republic, the transformation of [Moldovan] society, and ensuring a decent living standard for every citizen." The alliance proposed that parties to the center-left and center-right of the political spectrum join it under its current denomination, Our Moldova. Infotag reported on 1 March that negotiations are under way between the alliance and the extraparliamentary Democratic Party and Social Liberal Party to set up the joint electoral bloc. Our Moldova alliance co-Chairman Dumitru Braghis confirmed that talks are being conducted among the three parties and said that if they are successful, the bloc will be headed by Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean. Braghis also said that if the bloc wins the 2005 parliamentary elections, Urechean will be its candidate for president. The Moldovan head of state is elected by parliament. MS

In reaction to the appeal, Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca reminded Our Moldova that the PPCD called in February for the creation of a unified electoral bloc of democratic forces, and that Our Moldova rejected that proposal, Flux reported. Rosca said the PPCD proposal included a pledge not to form any future post-electoral coalition with the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) and not to cooperate with the PCM in the presidential elections, in the election of parliament's leading structures, or in forming the government. He said that since it is obvious that Our Moldova has no chance of winning the 2005 elections by itself, he "tends to believe" the party's latest appeal signals its readiness to cooperate with the communists. He also said the Our Moldovan Alliance is "obviously dependent on the interests of the Russian Federation," and is ready to promote those interests. MS

The Foreign Ministry on 1 March released a statement criticizing Russia's intention to have 17 polling stations in Moldova for Russian citizens participating in the country's 14 March presidential elections, Infotag reported. The ministry said Moscow did not consult with Chisinau on the matter, adding that it believes the number of polling stations is higher than necessary and that it regrets that "the Moldovan authorities have been subjected to a fait accompli that sets an undesirable precedent." The ministry said it believes polling stations at the Russian Embassy in Chisinau, the headquarters of the Russian contingent in Tiraspol, and for peacekeeping forces in Bendery-Tighina would have been sufficient. In addition, mobile polling stations could have been set up. The ministry added that the Moldovan authorities "do not assume responsibility for ensuring the security of the polling stations in eastern Moldovan [Transdniester] sectors that are not under the control of the Moldovan Republic's central authorities." MS

Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov said on 1 March that the government is seeking ways to privatize eight military-maintenance facilities owned by the state-owned Terem ordnance company, reported. Svinarov said the facilities must be privatized because the government is cannot guarantee future orders, adding that a private owner could possibly find new markets for the facilities and streamline operations -- including cutting employees, if necessary. Last week, Terem workers staged a protest outside the Defense Ministry to demand wage arrears. The ministry owes more than $5.7 million in back wages to Terem's 3,200 workers. Svinarov expects the government to decide on the privatization by May. UB

Defense Minister Svinarov met in Sofia on 1 March with his Albanian counterpart Pandeli Majko, BTA reported. The ministers discussed possible joint Albanian-Bulgarian maneuvers and military cooperation on an expert level. Majko and Svinarov also assessed the security situation in the region following the sudden loss of Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, who was killed in a plane crash on 26 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February and 1 March 2004; and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February 2004). The two defense ministers reportedly agreed that their countries should provide support to ensure stability in Macedonia. Majko said he expects a trilateral meeting of the defense ministers of Albania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia to take place in the near future. UB

"The next parliament is going to be moderate, without paying any attention to right-wing or left-wing slogans," Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said after casting his vote in the 20 February parliamentary elections, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 22 February. A specific date for the inauguration of the new legislature has not been set yet, but in 2000 the legislature was sworn-in in late May.

So far this message of moderation has been championed by what is normally one of the country's most conservative newspapers, "Resalat." Amir Mohebian wrote in a 21 February editorial that "reform" is important to all of Iranian society, and he added that "religious democracy" does not have a "specific backer." Mohebian said the new legislature will cooperate with President Mohammad Khatami's administration, and he also criticized the judiciary's press closures. "We prefer the overall intelligent management of the media," Mohebian wrote.

Mohammad Kazem Anbarlui, a "Resalat" editorial-board member, predicted in a 21 February interview with ISNA that there will be "less political commotion and sensationalism." He also predicted greater cooperation between the legislative and executive branches.

These predictions of calm on the political front may very well come true. The most likely reason for this is that disputes between the legislature and the Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation on Islamic and constitutional grounds, are unlikely to occur. And if the president who wins in Iran's 2005 presidential election is of a like mind, there will be almost no need for public disagreements.

The new political setting will affect policymaking in different ways in the domestic and international arenas. It can be argued reasonably that legislators in the last parliament had limited power, contending as they did with a Guardians Council that blocked their efforts, but they did have the ability to voice concern about important issues and bring them to public attention.

It was the outspoken outrage of parliamentarians over the beating death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi that forced the government to investigate the case, and similar outrage resulted in the trial of security officials after the July 1999 attack on a Tehran University dormitory. Admittedly, nothing really came of these protests, but at least the legislators exercised their responsibilities as the electorate's representatives by voicing concern over these issues.

The reformist parliamentarians also spoke out against the harsh press law and accompanying numerous press closures. It is unlikely that the new parliamentarians will defend the media with the same vigor.

The parliamentarians-elect were not very forthcoming with policy statements on other domestic issues. When asked about a range of subjects on 22 February, Haddad-Adel responded, "Let the seventh parliament convene, we will speak about issues together," IRNA reported.

Yet it seems that they agree on the importance of economic issues. Ahmad Tavakoli told a questioner before the election that Abadgaran's focus on entering the parliament would be "jobs, jobs, jobs," "Resalat" reported on 9 February. Tavakoli said at a subsequent press conference "we will pay serious attention to investment" in order to resolve the unemployment problem, "Nasim-i Saba" reported on 15 February. Another Abadgaran leader, Hussein Fadai, said that the coalition had studied people's demands over the last two years and found that resolution of "economic and political problems" tops the list, "Nasim-i Saba" reported. Tehran parliamentarian-elect Elham Aminzadeh described economic issues as the main priority, Mehr News Agency reported on 28 February.

Their economic plans could be tested soon. The parliament approved the outlines of the Khatami administration's 1.07 trillion rials ($129 million) budget for the coming year on 24 February, IRNA reported, and on 29 February approved a 1.15 trillion-rial budget. If the Guardians Council does not approve the budget before the end of May, the new parliament will have to complete work on it. On a related issue, the new parliament is less likely to insist on its oversight authority over controversial state agencies like Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the foundations (bonyads), that tend to be either controlled by or supportive of hard-line interests.

The current parliament has blocked the accession to the Guardians Council of a new jurist member several times. While it is possible that the head of the judiciary will persist in his efforts to get the new member approved by the incumbent legislators, he is more likely to wait for the new -- and presumably more amenable -- parliamentarians to be sworn in.

The predominant Iranian foreign policy issues will continue to be relations with the United States, nuclear developments, and interference in other countries' affairs. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei set the tone for relations with the United States in a 21 February speech about the elections that was broadcast by state radio and television. "The nation is the winner of these elections.... Those who lost the elections were America, Zionism, and the enemies of the Iranian nation," he said.

And in the first Friday prayers sermon after the elections, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani described the turnout as a major defeat for the United States, IRNA reported on 27 February, and he went on to claim that the United States is now backing the opposition in Iran. He said Iran is open to cooperation with all countries, except the United States. Rafsanjani claimed that Europe and the United States are seeking pretexts for interfering in Iranian affairs.

Under these circumstances, it seems unrealistic to expect a repeat of the August 2000 or January 2004 meetings between senior Iranian officials and U.S. senators and representatives.

Nor should one expect members of parliament to openly advocate an opening with the United States, as was the case in April 2002. At that time, parliamentarian Mohsen Mirdamadi organized several sessions to discuss ways to deal with the United States and said that there is nothing preventing discussions between Iranian parliamentarians and the United States. Tehran's Mohammad Naimipur said the taboo against relations with the United States must be broken.

This is not to say that officials from Tehran will be banned from meeting with their counterparts from Washington. Rather, they will just do so in secret, or else these contacts will take place in the context of "track-two diplomacy," in which unofficial actors convey governmental messages. It is less likely, furthermore, that legislators will conduct their own foreign-policy initiatives.

Some of the newly elected parliamentarians, on the other hand, are giving mixed signals on the possibility of relations with the United States. Ahmad Tavakoli, recipient of the second-highest number of votes in Tehran, said, "We do not regard relations with America ideologically as being absolutely necessary, like daily prayer and fasting, or absolutely forbidden like wine," "Etemad" reported on 22 February.

Tavakoli then launched into a familiar litany of alleged U.S. misdeeds: "America's approach to the Iranian nation is one of superiority and arrogance, and for years, it has been trampling on the rights of the Iranian nation. Therefore, it is not at all in our benefit to speak about relations vis-a-vis this hegemonic attitude. It should amend its behavior so that the system can respond accordingly to this change." He added that there is no need to make "specific changes" to the country's foreign policy.

Reformists, on the other hand, predicted before the election that the conservatives would begin discussions with the United States, because they want to claim for themselves the credit for doing so. A 5 February commentary in the reformist "Yas-i No" daily asserted that the conservatives requested that "foreign parties" stay quiet on the rejection of candidates before the election, and that afterwards, "the outlook for the development of relations will be good." Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization and Islamic Iran Participation Front official Mustafa Tajzadeh told ILNA on 16 February that the conservatives are promising the United States that, in exchange for its support, they will help solve the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The new legislature is likely to be very supportive of the government's nuclear activities. In November 2003, Isfahan parliamentarian Ahmad Shirzad spoke openly and critically about an Iranian nuclear weapons program. It seems certain there will be no repetitions of this incident.

Members of parliament also voiced concern about the Israeli discovery on the "Karine-A" (a ship carrying a cargo of Iranian supplied weapons), about the presence in their country of Al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel, and about the Iraqi foreign minister's visit to Tehran shortly before Operation Iraqi Freedom. A conservative-dominated legislature is unlikely to speak critically about these issues.

A campaign to postpone the Afghan parliamentary and presidential elections has been initiated by the Afghan Transitional Administration and its embassy in Washington, the Karachi daily "Dawn," reported on 1 March. The idea of delaying the elections, which are scheduled for June, is reportedly supported by "influential U.S. lawmakers," according the report. The new proposal is to hold the presidential elections in September and the parliamentary elections sometime in the spring of 2005. Thus far, only 8 percent of the estimated 11 million eligible voters in Afghanistan have been registered, the report added. "Observers have also objected to a U.S. proposal to recruit tribal leaders to hold the elections, because they say that giving weapons and money to these leaders for security arrangements during the elections can jeopardize the Afghan government's plan to disarm private militias," "Dawn" added. AT

The commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno, said on 1 March that there are no security problems ahead of the Afghan elections, the official Afghan Bakhtar News Agency reported. Barno said the main challenges are technical in nature, adding that coalition forces are in contact with the UN and that, with the establishment of new voter-registration centers, the elections can take place. It is not clear from the report whether Barno indicated the elections would take place as scheduled in June or later. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on 18 February criticized the UN for lagging in its preparations for voter registration (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004). AT

In a 29 February editorial, Herat News Center said there "is a strong possibility that the forthcoming presidential election will be postponed." According to the commentary, there are more than 100,000 militia fighters who need to be disarmed. However, the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program has so far managed to disarm only about 5,000 fighters. The commentary adds that it will take "at least 10 years to establish the country's national army." Therefore, in the absence of a national army and in view of the very slow progress in the DDR process, the Afghan people "have the right to be concerned" and this is the reason "why a great number of the people worry that the elections will not be democratic." AT

Mohammad Akram Uzbek on 28 February announced his candidacy for president of Afghanistan in the upcoming elections, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 29 February. Uzbek was a member of the Junbish-e Melli Party, but he indicated that he left the party some time ago. AT

One person was killed and another injured on 28 February in the northern Afghan town of Taloqan, "The New York Times," reported on 2 March. Afghan sources suspected the attack on the video store to have been inspired by the former Taliban regime, which banned videos and music. This was the second attack on the store in the past two weeks. AT

Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi hosted trade talks in Tehran on 29 February with Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Hilmi Guler, IRNA reported on 1 March. The two officials reportedly said they believe that commercial exchanges, including energy transfers, can exceed the annual $5 billion already planned. Aref-Yazdi said the countries' bilateral ties will be boosted during a future, unspecified visit by the Turkish prime minister, IRNA reported. Guler also said he had a positive meeting with Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, without providing further details. Guler said in Turkey prior to his trip to Iran that he planned to discuss a reduction in the price of Iranian gas imported from Iran, a request Iran said it was considering (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 27 February 2004). VS

Iran's parliament approved a $137 billion state budget for the new year that begins on 21 March, a 13.5 percent increase in year-on-year spending, AFP reported on 29 February. Legislators approved increased funding for encouraging foreign investment, the creation of jobs, and public-works projects, the French news agency reported. The budget estimates 7.3 percent annual growth, IRNA reported. Part of the budget includes a $1.5 million fund to counter "U.S. plots and conspiracies," AFP reported. The amount allocated to the fund is approved annually. VS

The price of consumer goods such as clothes, shoes, and foodstuffs is rising in Iranian cities as demand rises in the run-up to the Iranian new year on 21 March, "Entekhab" newspaper reported on 29 February. In Tehran, the cost of nuts and dried fruits, a staple of the new-year celebrations, has risen 10 percent-35 percent; fruit and vegetables, 20 percent-100 percent; and clothing in some Tehran districts by 20 percent-30 percent over an unspecified amount of time, Entekhab reported. The Commerce Ministry has promised to control vegetable and poultry prices before the new-year holidays, according to "Entekhab." Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari said on 28 February that the government will work to protect consumers from inflation during the new year, and will regulate prices of goods and services in the state sector, "Hayat-i No" reported on 29 February. VS

At least five bombs exploded on 2 March at two entrances to the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala as some 2 million Muslims gathered to commemorate the Ashura holy day (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 February 2004), Iraqi and international media reported. Husayn Mahdi, a senior official with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), told Reuters that at least 30 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. A correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on the scene said he believed the explosions were not caused by mortars, as some media had reported, but rather by bombs placed along the road. U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said that one suicide bomber detonated himself in the city center and three remote-controlled devices exploded at entrances to the city. Kimmitt added that six individuals were apprehended by Iraqi police, who reported discovering 2 kilograms of undetonated explosives at one entrance to the city. Many foreigners were reportedly among the killed and wounded, including Iranian, Pakistani, and Lebanese nationals. This is the first time in some 30 years that Shi'ite Iraqis have been able to mark the Ashura holiday, which was banned by the former Ba'athist regime. Despite the bombings, Shi'ites in the city continued to carry out the Ashura rituals. KR

At least three explosions were heard outside the Al-Kadhimiyah Mosque in Baghdad on 2 March as Shi'ite worshippers gathered for Ashura festivities, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. According to initial reports, about 75 people were killed in the blasts and scores were injured, RFE/RL reported. According to an RFI correspondent on the scene, one blast occurred inside the mosque, and two others exploded outside the mosque, which is the third holiest site in Shi'a Islam. U.S. Brigadier General Kimmitt said that three suicide bombers perpetrated the act, and a would-be bomber was apprehended at the scene. An unspecified number of foreign worshippers were among the killed and injured, including Afghans, Iranians, Lebanese, and Thais. A fight broke out between U.S. soldiers who arrived on the scene following the blasts and worshippers, according to RFI. Police reportedly arrested a few people carrying TNT and other explosives near the mosque. Locals blamed the terrorist groups Ansar Al-Islam and Al-Qaeda for the attack. Suspected Al-Qaeda leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi recently purportedly wrote a letter seeking Al-Qaeda support to start a civil war between Sunnis and Shi'a in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 12 February 2004). The number of dead and injured in Karbala and Baghdad is expected to rise. KR

"Al-Hayat" reported on 1 March that the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army has posted a statement on a web group hosted by the Islamic Media Center ( vowing continued attacks against the U.S. military in Iraq. The statement, signed by the army's "amir," Abu Abdallah al-Hasan bin Mahmud, criticized the Iraqi Governing Council for colluding with the U.S.-led coalition, and the Shi'a community for failing to take a stand against "the infidel assailants in our Muslim country." Specifically, the statement said the Governing Council members are "members in a government where the U.S. governor and not Allah the Exalted makes the final decisions." Regarding the Shi'a, the statement says: "We were not surprised by this ignominious stand on their part, but praised Allah the Exalted for not giving them a share in the jihad and the reward for it.... It is in [the Shi'a] community's nature to stand with the infidels against the people of the Sunnah...." The statement also criticized mosque preachers for not encouraging jihad in Iraq and said that jihad not only threatens the U.S. military in Iraq but "is also a danger to the American people." KR

Kurds reportedly broke into and vandalized the headquarters of the Iraqi Turkoman Front in Kirkuk on 29 February, Voice of the Mujahedin radio reported on 1 March. The vandals apparently destroyed computers, furniture, and 20 vehicles parked on the grounds. The vehicles belonged to supporters of the Turkoman Front. Party official Subhi Sabir said the group that attacked the headquarters was carrying Kurdish flags and pictures of Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Mas'ud Barzani. "We do not know whether they carried out this act upon directives from these two people, or [if] it was a spontaneous act," Sabir said. KR