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Newsline - March 5, 2004


DUMA CONFIRMS NEW PRIME MINISTER...
The State Duma on 5 March confirmed Mikhail Fradkov as prime minister by a vote of 352-58 with 24 abstentions, Russian media reported. In his speech to deputies, Fradkov said the main tasks of the new government will be to raise living standards and to secure stability and economic growth, lenta.ru reported. He added that his cabinet will continue the key reforms begun by the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, including military, tax, administrative, and housing-sector reforms. He confirmed that he plans major cuts in the government, saying a study of the Kasyanov government revealed that "one-quarter of its functions were superfluous," the website reported. Fradkov added that he will reduce the rate of the unified social tax, although he did not give details. Fradkov also pledged greater openness. "It is essential to make sure not only that citizens are informed about the government's activities in a timely fashion, but also to secure public control over its work," Fradkov said, according to strana.ru. Finally, he criticized delays within the judicial system. "We must make the judicial branch independent, no just de jure, but de facto," Fradkov said. RC

...WITH COMMUNISTS LEADING THE OPPOSITION
Only two of the 306 Unified Russia faction members voted against Prime Minister Fradkov's confirmation, while all 36 members of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) faction supported the nomination, newsru.com reported. Forty-nine of the 50 Communist Party faction members voted against Fradkov. The Motherland bloc was fractured by the vote, with 33 boycotting the proceedings, six deputies voting for Fradkov, nine voting against, and 18 abstaining. Among independents, five voted for Fradkov and six voted against. Addressing the Duma before the vote, Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov, the Communist Party's presidential candidate, upbraided the Unified Russia faction, saying its deputies "rode into the Duma on the backs of 30 governors and seven ministries," newsru.com reported. The news service of "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported that Kharitonov said President Vladimir Putin and the new government "do not have a scientifically based strategy for pulling Russia out of its crisis." He called the new cabinet "a committee for the liquidation of the Russian Federation," newsru.com reported. Speaking after the vote, Communist Party faction leader Gennadii Zyuganov said deputies should have postponed the vote for two weeks to give Fradkov time to prepare and submit a "detailed economic plan," the website reported. RC

FEDERAL TV STATIONS CUT COMMUNIST CANDIDATE A BREAK...
RTR and ORT both covered Communist Party presidential candidate Kharitonov's speech to his election agents in Tula Oblast on 4 March. Kharitonov, together with fellow candidate Irina Khakamada had earlier filed a protest with the Central Election Commission against a decision by ORT and RTR to broadcast President Putin's 12 February speech to his election agents in its entirety (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 23 February 2004). Last week, Kharitonov said the Communist Party would decide whether to withdraw him from the race based partly on the state channels' coverage of his speech (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). Both stations carried reports about Kharitonov's speech and excerpts from it, but neither broadcast it in its entirety. JAC

...AS HE FOCUSES ON SOCIAL INJUSTICE...
In his address, Kharitonov focused on the negative consequences of 15 years of rule by "liberal democrats," Russian media reported on 4 March. He mentioned particularly the concentration of wealth in the hands of a "tiny group of men" and the growing gap between the rich and poor. Kharitonov also noted the ethnic make-up of the government and leadership of large corporations. "The population of Russia is over 80 percent [ethnic] Russians, but look at the composition of the government! Look at the composition of those who run the economy, gas, oil, and finance [sectors]," Kharitonov said. Some analysts believe he might have been referring to Jews; he recently named former Krasnodar Krai Governor Nikolai Kondratenko, a noted anti-Semite, as a possible candidate for prime minister if Kharitonov wins the election, M&K reported on 3 March. The excerpts of his speech shown on the state-controlled stations were not critical of President Putin or his policies. JAC

...AND POLLS SHOW HIM IN SECOND PLACE
ORT noted that opinion polls show Kharitonov has reached second place in the race behind President Putin. The Public Opinion Foundation's most recent poll shows Kharitonov with 6.1 percent, compared with 64.8 percent for Putin, 2.9 percent for former State Duma Deputy Irina Khakamada, and 2.8 percent for State Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev (Motherland). According to its most recent polls, Tsentr-Levada, the successor organization to VTsIOM-A, ranks Putin first with 80 percent, followed by Kharitonov with 5 percent and Glazev with 4 percent. JAC

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE LOSES DUMA LEADERSHIP POST...
As expected, members of the Motherland faction in the State Duma voted on 4 March to dismiss presidential candidate Glazev as their faction leader, RosBalt reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2004). The bloc's co-chairman during the State Duma race and current Duma Deputy Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin was named to replace Glazev. Sergei Baburin, who had been the faction's deputy leader, will replace Rogozin as Duma deputy speaker. Announcing the faction's decision, Rogozin denied that the presidential administration played any role in Glazev's ouster, stating that he is "categorically against" such interference. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 4 March, Glazev repeated charges that the presidential administration engineered his dismissal. The Kremlin's motivation, according to Glazev, was to "reduce his political status" so that he is no longer the "leader of a faction backed by an electoral bloc that won 5.5 million votes [in the State Duma election] to an individual deputy taking part in the election on his own initiative." JAC

...AND CHARGES THAT KREMLIN IS PRESSING HARD FOR HIGH TURNOUT
In his 4 March interview with Ekho Moskvy, Glazev also charged that during a recent trip to the regions, he discovered that "massive pressure is being exerted on local election commissions and on local officials to secure the desired outcome for the elections." He alleged that the target figure is a 70 percent vote for President Putin and a 70 percent voter turnout. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 3 March, "Moskovskie novosti" Editor in Chief Yevgenii Kiselev, who is a co-founder of the Committee 2008, called on presidential candidate Khakamada to withdraw from the race and to support the committee's call for voters to boycott the 14 March election. He argued that if Khakamada continues and wins only a "tiny" portion of the votes, then this will give extra ammunition to the critics of the liberal-democratic idea in Russia. "The higher the turnout is, the more legitimate the election will be, the more freely Putin can act," Kiselev said. JAC

RYBKIN PULLS OUT OF PRESIDENTIAL RACE...
Former State Duma Speaker and presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin told journalists in Moscow on 5 March that he is withdrawing from the 14 March election, Russian and international media reported. "I will not take part in this farce," Rybkin said, according to dpa. "I expected some pressure, but not this kind of unbridled mayhem." Rybkin did not call on other candidates to pull out of the race, but he did not urge his supporters to vote for any of them. "I prefer a boycott of the election," Rybkin said, according to strana.ru. RC

...AS DUMA DEPUTY CLAIMS TO HAVE PHONE TRANSCRIPTS THAT REVEAL ALL...
Before arriving in Moscow on 5 March, Rybkin stopped over briefly in Kyiv on 4 March, Russian media reported. According to gazeta.ru, State Duma Deputy and investigative journalist Aleksandr Khinshtein (Unified Russia) obtained from contacts at the Federal Security Service (FSB) transcripts of Rybkin's telephone conversations during the period that he was missing last month -- 5-10 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 12, 17, and 18 February 2004). According to the transcripts, Rybkin was picked up at his Moscow apartment on 5 February by Serhiy Bezsmertnyy, brother of Ukrainian parliamentarian Roman Bezsmertnyy. The two drove to Kaluga, where they caught a train to Kyiv. There, they were met by Brinkford holding company Director Ihor Kerez. They were later joined by Ukrainian parliamentarian Davyd Zhvaniya, who is reportedly an associate of self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii. According to gazeta.ru, Zhvaniya originally denied meeting with Rybkin during the latter's trip to Kyiv, but now he has confirmed that they met "briefly" and discussed "politics." JAC

...ALTHOUGH THEY RAISE NEW QUESTIONS ABOUT RYBKIN'S STORY
According to gazeta.ru, the purported transcripts appear to confirm certain parts of Rybkin's early story about his disappearance last month, but not the details of his trip that he divulged only after he arrived in London, including claims that he was drugged and held unconscious. Rybkin will hold another press conference in Moscow on 5 March, and "all will probably be explained." JAC

JEWISH LEADERS HAIL FRADKOV'S NOMINATION
Russian Jewish Congress President Yevgenii Satanovskii and Berl Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, both praised the nomination of presidential representative to the EU Mikhail Fradkov to the post of prime minister, Interfax reported on 4 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004). Satanovskii said Fradkov's nomination is "symbolic in terms of the administration's ethnic policy." He noted that the two peoples who have been mistrusted most in Russia since the time of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin -- Germans and Jews -- now occupy cabinet posts. "But the ethnic origins of [acting Economic Development and Trade Minister German] Gref or of Fradkov, [Culture Minister Mikhail] Shvydkoi or [Gazprom Chairman Aleksei] Miller are not an obstacle to their work." Lazar noted that Fradkov is not a Jew by Jewish law, since he is Jewish on his father's side and not his mother's, but his name has been entered in the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia of 2000. "Fradkov is positive about Judaism and promotes the development of the Jewish community in Russia," he said. JAC

INDICTED FUND OFFICIAL GETS THE SACK
Acting Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko dismissed Vladimir Malin from his post as head of the Federal Property Fund, ITAR-TASS reported on 4 March, citing the government information department. Fund First Deputy Chairman Kirill Tomashchuk was named acting chairman. Last week, Malin was charged by the Prosecutor-General's Office with exceeding his authority in ending legal challenges to the 1994 privatization of a 20 percent stake in the Apatit fertilizer company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004). Also on 4 March, Anatolii Serdyukov was appointed acting deputy tax minister and Acting Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov was named ambassador to Japan, RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported. Losyukov was formerly responsible for Asia and Pacific affairs at the Foreign Ministry. JAC

BLAZE HALTS WORK AT ARBITRATION COURT
A major fire swept through the building of the Moscow Arbitration Court on the night of 4-5 March, destroying office space and crucial records of active cases, Russian media reported. The cause of the blaze has not been determined, and no casualties have been reported. Lenta.ru on 4 March quoted an unidentified Emergency Situations official as saying that no evidence of arson has been uncovered. "The Moscow Times" cited an Emergency Situations source as saying that security guards at the court delayed calling the fire department for two hours after fire alarms went off while they searched for the cause of the alarm. According to Interfax, the fire was concentrated on the building's seventh floor, where the court's bankruptcy section was located. The Moscow Arbitration Court is one of the country's busiest courts. According to the court's website (http://www.msk.arbitr.ru), the court began 2003 with 1,075 active cases. The work of the court has been indefinitely suspended in connection with the fire, according to a statement on the website. RC

DID KREMLIN INTERFERE ON BEHALF OF INCUMBENT IN FAR NORTH?
The decision this week by State Duma Deputy Vladimir Krupchak (Unified Russia) to withdraw from the 14 March gubernatorial election in Arkhangelsk Oblast was due to Kremlin interference, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 4 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2003). Krupchak was considered the chief rival to incumbent Governor Anatolii Yefremov. According to the daily, Krupchak told reporters on 3 March that he decided to withdraw from the race following a meeting with the "first person in the [federal] government." According to the daily, the Kremlin did not appear to have taken a stance regarding the election until President Putin met recently with Yefremov. RosBalt reported on 2 March, citing unidentified sources close to Krupchak, that the legislator discovered that the Kremlin supports Yefremov, and he concluded that he did not have time to show them that he could be as effective as Yefremov. According to "Kommersant-Daily," before Krupchak's withdrawal, Yefremov's chances of being elected to a third term were not considered high, and a second round was considered unavoidable. JAC

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION SIGNALS INTERNAL SPLIT
A spokesman for the opposition Hanrapetutiun party announced on 3 March that the opposition should consider their party leader the most effective leader of the opposition Artarutiun bloc, RFE/RL's Armenian bureau reported. The statement adds that Hanrapetutiun party leader and former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian is "one of the most viable alternatives" to President Robert Kocharian. The move is an open threat to the opposition's rather delicate year-old alliance, and also reflects recent dissatisfaction with the opposition bloc's current leader, failed presidential candidate and People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) leader Stepan Demirchian. RG

ARMENIA REPORTS INCREASE IN EXTERNAL DEBT
Officials of the Finance and Economy Ministry reported on 3 March that Armenia's foreign debt rose by nearly 7 percent to reach $1.1 billion at the end of 2003, Arminfo reported. Armenia's debt to international creditors accounted for 88 percent of the total, with $674 million owed to the World Bank and another $215 million to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These figures represent increases in 2003 of 24 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The announcement complicates the Armenian government's pledge late last month to significantly reduce its foreign debt. RG

FIVE KILLED IN PLANE CRASH AT BAKU AIRPORT
A Ukrainian-owned Ilyushin-76 cargo plane crashed at Baku's Bina Airport on 4 March, killing at least five of the plane's seven-member crew, Interfax and the "Baku Sun" reported. The plane was en route from Ankara to Kabul and crashed minutes into its takeoff from the Baku airport after refueling. Azerbaijani officials reported that an investigation into the crash is now under way. RG

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT ARRIVES IN AZERBAIJAN ON STATE VISIT
Arriving in Baku on 4 March on his first official visit to Azerbaijan, Mikheil Saakashvili was welcomed at the airport by Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade and Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Characterizing Azerbaijan as Georgia's "strategic partner," Saakashvili stressed that his visit to Baku, "after my trips to Washington and Moscow, reflects the significance Georgia attributes to relations with Azerbaijan." The Georgian leader is to hold meetings with Azerbaijani officials on regional energy projects and is to discuss measures aimed at bolstering bilateral economic cooperation. In a statement prior to his departure from Tbilisi, Saakashvili stated that the need for greater regional integration will serve as "the essence of the Georgian leadership's policy." RG

GREECE TO DONATE MISSILE CRUISER TO GEORGIAN NAVY
Joni Rukhadze, the head of the Georgian Naval Defense Force's Military Policy and International Relations Department, announced on 3 March that Greece has promised to donate a missile cruiser worth 22 million euros ($27 million) to the Georgian Navy, Interfax reported. Adding that a 40-member Georgian crew is currently being trained by the Greek Navy, Rukhadze said the cruiser will become the flagship of the Georgian Navy. The cruiser, the first of its kind in the Georgian Navy, is scheduled to be delivered next month. RG

OSCE OFFICIAL MEETS WITH GEORGIAN LEADERS IN TBILISI
On an official visit to Georgia, OSCE Commissioner on National Minorities Rolf Ekeus met on March 4 with Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze, Foreign Minister Tedo Japaridze, and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania in Tbilisi to discuss a wide range of issues, including the status of the country's ethnic minorities, Civil Georgia and A-Info reported. Ekeus reviewed issues related to the education, language use, and the political participation of national minorities. Commenting on the upcoming parliamentary elections set for 28 March, Ekeus stressed that "a key element for integration in multiethnic states is the effective participation of minorities in free and fair elections." RG

WORLD BANK OFFICIAL WARNS OF CENTRAL ASIA AIDS DANGER
Merrell Tuck-Primdahl, senior external-relations officer at the World Bank for Europe and Central Asia, told UN news agency IRIN on 4 March that Central Asia needs to take immediate measures to avoid a devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic over the next 10 years. Tuck-Primdahl noted an "exponential" increase in registered cases -- "from less than a hundred in 1995 to more than 7,000 in 2003." The Word Bank estimates the actual number of cases o f HIV infection in the region at up to 90,000. Intravenous drug use is the primary cause, accounting for 70-90 percent of all new HIV cases. If current trends continue, they will have a palpable economic effect. "The epidemic could take as much as 0.5 to 1 percent of GDP over the next 10 years," Tuck-Primdahl said. She likened the situation in Central Asia to the initial spread of the disease in Africa 15 to 20 years ago. Tuck-Primdahl noted that Kyrgyzstan has worked with international organizations to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, but she cautioned, "I think it's not quite as big a priority in some of the other countries yet." DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT WISHES PUTIN ELECTION VICTORY
Askar Akaev wished his Russian counterpart a second term in office on 4 March, akipress.org reported. Speaking in Bishkek at the International Congress on the Russian Language in the CIS, Akaev addressed the topic of Russia's 14 March presidential election. "We are sure that Russian citizens will actively support their president, who has been recognized the world over as an outstanding statesman," Akaev said. "We wish him victory in the elections and great deeds in the future." Akaev also forecast a bright future for Kyrgyz-Russian relations. "I am convinced of the eternity of Kyrgyz-Russian brotherhood," he said. "I see in this a guarantee of Kyrgyzstan's national security, our economic and humanitarian rebirth, and the progress of national culture, which has absorbed the great wealth of Russian culture." DK

TAJIK JUSTICE MINISTRY ADMITS TO DELAY OF OPPOSITION-PARTY REGISTRATION
Tajik Deputy Justice Minister Rustam Mengliev confirmed to Asia Plus-Blitz on 4 March that the Justice Ministry has delayed the registration of the new Taraqqiyot Party. Mengliev also criticized the opposition party for raising the issue in a recent open letter to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). "The party should not have aggravated the situation with this kind of appeal," Mengliev said. "It should merely have turned to the Supreme Court of Tajikistan with an appeal against the delay." Mengliev also said Tajikistan should amend its 30-day registration procedure for parties to give the authorities more time to review documents and make a decision. Finally, he told the news agency that the Justice Ministry is still considering Taraqqiyot's registration application. DK

TAJIK OFFICIAL DOWNPLAYS AFGHAN DRUG TRANSIT THROUGH TAJIKISTAN
Tajik Drug Control Agency Director Ghaffor Mirzoev told a 3 March news conference that Afghanistan exports only 15 percent of its drug output through Tajikistan, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 4 March. The comments came at a news conference to present a UN report that cites the Afghan-Tajik border as a major heroin transit point (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2004). According to Mirzoev, 85 percent of Afghanistan's drug output reaches the outside world through other countries, including Iran, Turkmenistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Mirzoev also noted that 90 percent of the Afghan drug output transported through Tajikistan proceeds on to Russia. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, 9.6 tons of narcotics were confiscated in Tajikistan in 2003, including 5.6 tons of heroin. DK

RUSSIAN OFFICIAL SAYS TAJIK BASE TALKS DEADLOCKED
A highly placed official in the Russian Defense Ministry said talks with Tajikistan on the transformation of Russia's 201st Motorized Infantry Division into a military base are "deadlocked," ITAR-TASS reported on 4 March. According to the source, Tajikistan wants Russia to forgive $300 million in Tajik sovereign debt to Russia and to pay $50 million for the use of a military communications facility in Nurek. "The Tajik authorities have gone so far as to consider their own property all of the Russian weapons, equipment, and infrastructure facilities located in the republic," the Russian Defense Ministry source told the news agency. Russia's 201st Division has been deployed outside of Dushanbe for many years, and Russia would like to transform it into a permanent military base. DK

TURKMENISTAN TO BUILD $1 BILLION OIL REFINERY
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov announced on 4 March that his country plans to invest more than $1 billion in the reconstruction of the Seidi oil refinery in eastern Turkmenistan, turkmenistan.ru reported. According to Niyazov, the resulting installation will be "the largest facility in the country, with a production capacity of 6 million to 7 million tons of oil each year," RIA-Novosti reported on 4 March. The government's agent for the project will be Israel's Merkhav, which oversaw the reconstruction of a refinery in the port city of Turkmenbashi, turkmenistan.ru reported. Estimated investment in the Turkmenbashi project, completed in 2001, was between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. DK

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT INSTRUCTS NEW PROPERTY MANAGER TO CLEAN HOUSE
Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 4 March ordered the newly appointed head of the presidential administration's Property Management Department to eradicate fraud inside the organization, Belapan reported the same day. Henadz Laurankou replaced Halina Zhuraukova, who was dismissed and arrested last month on embezzlement charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). "The reasons for failures [of the Property Management Department] were in its cadres," Belarusian Television quoted Lukashenka as saying. "Many people have worked for themselves, not for the state." Laurankou previously headed the tax police in Mahilyou Oblast. JM

WASHINGTON CONCERNED OVER CLOSURE OF UKRAINIAN BROADCASTER
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on 4 March criticized Ukrainian authorities' decision to halt FM broadcasts by Radio Kontynent, which retransmitted RFE/RL, BBC, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle programming (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2004). "The shutdown yesterday of Radio Kontynent and the silencing of RFE/RL, Voice of America, and other international broadcasters is an assault on democracy," Boucher said. "It is very serious in an election year in Ukraine, when the need for news from many sources is at its greatest." The move was also condemned by a number of international organizations, including the London-based Association for International Broadcasting, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. Meanwhile, Ukrainian opposition lawmaker Mykola Tomenko on 4 March submitted a draft resolution that proposed a moratorium on all checks and inspections of mass media during the forthcoming presidential election campaign in Ukraine. The measure was backed by just 206 deputies, 20 votes short of the number required for approval, Interfax reported. JM

KYIV WARNS WARSAW OVER DISCRIMINATION IN STEELWORKS PRIVATIZATION
Ukrainian Economy Minister Mykola Derkach told Polish Ambassador to Ukraine Marek Ziolkowski on 4 March that Ukrainian-Polish cooperation will be placed at risk if Ukraine's Industrial Union of Donbas is discriminated against when the Polish steelworks Huta Czestochowa is privatized, Interfax reported. The Ukrainians lost a tender last month for a state stake in Huta Czestochowa to the Indian-Dutch-British holding LMN and charged that the winner was selected based on political rather than economic considerations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). Derkach added that Poland's rejection of the Ukrainian bid is seen by Kyiv as a "manifestation of 'Ukrainophobia' and discrimination against Ukraine." The Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" recently reported that the Ukrainian bid was turned down after Poland's Internal Security Agency warned the government that the Industrial Union of Donbas might be involved in money laundering, the accumulation of capital from an unknown origin, and the promotion of Russian interests in Poland. JM

ESTONIAN PRESIDENT REFUSES TO APPROVE AMENDMENTS TO EUROPARLIAMENTARY ELECTION LAW
Arnold Ruutel has refused to promulgate amendments to the law on elections to the European Parliament that would have established an open-list system by which candidates receiving the most votes would win regardless of their position on party tickets, BNS reported on 4 March. The amendments, passed by the parliament in February, were supported by Res Publica and by opposition members the Center Party, Moderates, and Pro Patria Union. The other two coalition partners, the Reform Party and People's Union, favored retaining the current closed-list system. The president's decision means that the amendments will be returned to parliament for another vote. If parliament approves the amendments again, the president is required to sign them into law, although he may delay the process by asking the Supreme Court to rule on their constitutionality. Prime Minister Juhan Parts said open lists are likely to boost participation in the elections, the news agency reported. SG

PACE REPRESENTATIVES TO EVALUATE MINORITY SITUATION IN LATVIA
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) Monitoring Committee on 4 March decided to send representatives to Latvia to evaluate the situation of minorities there, BNS reported the same day. The committee, which monitors member states' adherence to commitments and obligations, will send two representatives to Latvia later this month to determine whether a monitoring procedure should be established (see http://assembly.coe.int). Russian Deputy Duma Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin's, who was recently denied a Latvian visa (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004), proposal that representatives be sent to evaluate the situation regarding Latvia's Russian minority and the country's education reforms, BNS reported. Andris Berzins, the head of the Latvian delegation to PACE, expressed regret that PACE Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer and the committee supported Rogozin's proposal without first examining a report about Latvia prepared by the commission's chairwoman, Josette Durrieu. The report reportedly stated that Latvia's education reforms and other policies do not infringe the rights of the country's minorities. "We were going to a wedding, but a funeral took place," Berzins said. Latvian parliament speaker Ingrida Udre is planning to send a letter to Schwimmer to protest the decision. SG

LITHUANIAN SOCIAL DEMOCRATS FAVOR SLOWER PACE FOR IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS
The board of the ruling Social Democratic Party's parliament faction on 4 February supported suspending hearings on the impeachment of Rolandas Paksas until the Constitutional Court rules on the constitutionality of the charges levied against the president, BNS reported. Party Chairman and Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas argued against a suspension, as it could prevent the impeachment process from being completed by 1 May, when Lithuania is expected to join the EU. Opposition Liberal and Center Union faction Chairman Eligijus Masiulis characterized the Social Democrats' decision as "illogical," saying that everything possible should be done to speed up the impeachment decision. Parliament is scheduled to begin the formal impeachment hearings at a 5 March extraordinary session at which Supreme Court Chairman Vytautas Gricius will be approved to preside over them. SG

POLISH RULING PARTY FORMS COALITION WITH SPLINTER GROUP...
The ruling Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union (SLD-UP) bloc initialed a coalition deal on 4 March with the Federative Parliamentary Club (FKP), a group of 15 deputies who in the past left their respective parliamentary caucuses, Polish media reported. The FKP, led by Roman Jagielinski, pledged to support an austerity plan prepared by Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner, all bills to approximate EU legislation, and a 2005 budget bill in voting in the Sejm. The coalition agreement is expected to be signed next week, when the posts that the SLD-UP gave up in exchange for FKP support should also become clear. The SLD-UP and the FKP control a combined 222 votes in the 460-seat Sejm. Many analysts predict the ruling coalition can also count on votes from 16 independent deputies, who would support major government-sponsored bills in order to avert the dissolution of the parliament and early elections. JM

...AND MOVES ON WITH AUSTERITY PLAN IN PARLIAMENT
The newly created coalition SLD-UP-FKP withstood its first test on 4 March when it led voting to approve five bills from Economy Minister Hausner's austerity package, Polish media reported. The coalition, with support from some opposition lawmakers, passed a bill on reforming the Farmers Social Security Fund and another on funding the military. The Sejm also voted down a motion by right-wing parliamentary caucuses to reject three other austerity bills -- on pre-pension benefits, the indexation of senior and disability benefits, and job promotion -- in their first readings. Hausner said the five bills represent a savings of more than 20 billion zlotys ($5.1 billion) over four years. JM

CZECH PRESIDENT VISITS EU INSTITUTIONS
On his first visit to EU institutions in Brussels as Czech president, Vaclav Klaus met on 4 March with European Commission President Romano Prodi, EU foreign- and security-policy High Representative Javier Solana, and European Parliament President Patrick Cox, CTK reported. In an apparent allusion to Germany and France, Klaus told Prodi that those EU members insisting on faster integration should contribute more to the EU budget. He said it is illogical to complain about being a donor member and at the same time push for more rapid integration, whose costs are high. Klaus took a similar tack in discussions with former NATO chief Solana, saying NATO too often decides to participate in foreign missions and only later thinks about the cost of those missions. On his return to Prague on 4 March, Klaus, who considers himself a "Euro-realist," said he is satisfied with the results of the visit. The goal was to inform, not to convince, he added. MS

CZECH INTERIOR MINISTER HINTS AT POSSIBLE COOPERATION WITH COMMUNISTS
Social Democratic Party (CSSD) Deputy Chairman and Interior Minister Stanislav Gross told a radio audience on 4 March that he cannot rule out the possibility of a CSSD minority government backed in parliament by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), CTK reported. Gross added that the scenario would be "a great risk" for the CSSD because the KSCM remains an unreformed communist party, saying, "I would not like to open the road to power to the Communists." A CSSD conference in 1995 forbade any formal alliance with the Communists in the absence of a clean break by the KSCM with its past, and current Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has consistently maintained that position. The speculation arises in the wake of the recent resignation of parliamentary deputy Tomas Vrbik from the junior coalition Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2004). MS

SLOVAK, CZECH LAWMAKERS VISIT CUBAN DISSIDENTS
Laszlo Nagy, chairman of the Slovak parliament's Human Rights Committee, spoke to journalists on 4 March upon his return from a visit to Cuba, where he said he met with opponents of President Fidel Castro's regime, including Osvaldo Paya Sardinas, CTK reported. Nagy said he was accompanied on his visit by an unspecified Czech lawmaker who Nagy said "is still in Cuba, fulfilling his mission there." Nagy added that the Czech parliamentarian will return "by the end of the week." Nagy said he and his Czech colleague were delegated by the European People's Party to deliver money and "other things" to Cuban dissidents. Cuban authorities detained former Czech Finance Minister and parliamentarian Ivan Pilip along with former student activist Jan Bubenik while they were in Cuba in 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2001). MS

SLOVAK ROMANY GROUP DEMANDS RESIGNATION OF GOVERNMENT COMMISSIONER
Slovak Romany Initiative (RIS) Chairman Alexander Patkolo said on 4 March on Slovak Radio that Klara Orgovanova, who is government commissioner for Romany affairs, should resign her position, CTK reported. Patkolo charged that Orgovanova is displaying favoritism toward some Romany organizations at the expense of others, has no broad strategy, and is promoting divisions among Romany organizations. Orgovanova dismissed the allegations, saying some organizations believe Patkolo is acting against Romany interests. She added that only the cabinet is entitle to assess her performance. Palatko also accused Romany Parliament Chairman Ladislav Fizik of inciting the recent riots that followed the announcement of government cuts in social benefits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23, 24, 25, and 26 February 2004). International Romany Union President Emil Scuka and Romany Association Dzeno Chairman Ivan Vesely met on 4 March with Orgovanova, who outlined a draft program up for government debate that is aimed at helping integrate Roma in Slovak society through the year 2010. MS

HUNGARIAN RULING PARTY'S CHAIRMAN CRITICIZED WITHIN OWN RANKS
Ruling Socialist Party National Council Chairman Gyorgy Janosi told a news conference in Debrecen on 4 March that he wants to see the party headed by a chairman who can strengthen the entire party through "integrative, firm, and clear-cut policy lines." Without naming party Chairman Laszlo Kovacs, Janosi said the Socialists need a better chairman who can issue a warning if the party's or the government's program is not implemented according to earlier promises, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Janosi has frequently expressed criticism of the party and government in the past year. MSZ

HUNGARY'S LEADING PARTIES CLASH OVER TRANSYLVANIA POLICIES
During a debate on foreign-policy issues held at the University of Economics in Budapest on 4 March, Foreign Minister Kovacs and the head of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee for the opposition FIDESZ clashed over a wide range of issues including the thorny issue of autonomy for Transylvania's Hungarian minority, according to Hungarian media reports. FIDESZ's Zsolt Nemeth said recent demands for territorial autonomy by Transylvanian organizations and political personalities have created a historic opportunity for implementing the Hungarian minority's aspirations for autonomy before Romania joins the European Union. "With that, we could abolish Trianon," Nemeth said in a reference to the 1920 treaty that dismantled the Austro-Hungarian empire. Nemeth also charged that the ruling Socialist Party's position on autonomy allows neighboring governments to employ anti-Hungarian rhetoric. Kovacs countered that Romania's Hungarian minority can only achieve autonomy if there is agreement on the issue between the Hungarian minority and the Romanian ethnic majority. Kovacs added that those who stir the spirits of ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania and then leave smoldering embers behind are irresponsible. MS

SERBIAN MINISTER SAYS 'NO' TO EXTRADITION OF INDICTED WAR CRIMINALS...
Serbian Economy Minister Dragan Marsicanin, who is deputy leader of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), said in Belgrade on 4 March that no further indicted war criminals will be sent to the Hague-based tribunal, dpa reported. He stressed that "the answer [to any extradition request] is no," even if it costs Serbia economic assistance. Both the United States and the EU have told the new government that they expect it to cooperate with the tribunal if Belgrade wants economic support and Euro-Atlantic integration. Kostunica has made it clear that he has little use for the tribunal and wants any indicted war criminals to be tried by Serbian courts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February, and 2 and 4 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January and 20 February 2004). PM

...AS U.S. AGAIN WARNS SERBIA
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica by telephone on 4 March, "encouraging" him to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, the BBC's Serbian Service reported. In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a press conference that "we have been interested in working with Serbia and Montenegro on issues like reform, [the] rule of law, [and] the movement of Serbia and Montenegro towards European values and European institutions. We would hope to be able to continue to do that in various ways," the State Department's website reported (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2004/30161.htm). "The extent to which we can do that depends on the commitment the government shows to reform...[and to] the rule of law, particularly in the area of cooperation with the international tribunal in The Hague. It's a matter not only of important policy for us, but it's a matter of law as well, that the secretary [of state] has to look at the situation and decide whether he can certify certain conditions by...March 31 of every year" before assistance to Belgrade can be approved, Boucher added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February, and 2 and 4 March 2004). PM

SERBIAN GOVERNMENT MAKES CHANGES...
The Serbian parliament elected Predrag Markovic of the G-17 Plus party as its new speaker on 4 March, replacing Dragoljub Marsicanin, who recently became economy minister, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The new Serbian government dismissed several officials appointed by its predecessor, including Deputy Interior Minister Sreten Lukic, whom the Hague-based war crimes tribunal has indicted. Lukic remains on active duty as a police general. Elsewhere, Dragoljub Micunovic resigned as speaker of the parliament of Serbia and Montenegro. His successor is expected to be chosen at the next session of the legislature, which will be the first parliamentary session following the reassignment of Serbian seats in keeping with the results of the 28 December Serbian parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 February 2004). PM

...AND ALREADY FACES CREDIBILITY PROBLEMS
Serbian Interior Minister Dragan Jocic was sentenced by a Belgrade court in 1981 for breaking into and robbing a kiosk, the Belgrade daily "Glas Javnosti" reported on 4 March. He received a six-month sentence that was suspended for good behavior. On 5 March, Jocic said he indeed broke into the kiosk and was sentenced, calling it a "youthful mistake," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. This is already the third example of a credibility question regarding Serbia's new government, which was announced only on 2 March and confirmed the following day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 3 March 2004). Recent media reports noted that Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic sentenced six people in 1984 for trying to set up postwar Yugoslavia's first noncommunist party. The Serbian Radical Party (SRS) meanwhile charged that Energy Minister Radomir Naumov has been involved in embezzlement in the energy business. PM

KOSOVARS PROTEST TALKS WITH SERBIA
European Commission envoy Joly Dixon said in Prishtina on 4 March that working groups appointed by the Kosovar government and the Serbian authorities, respectively, reached an agreement on several unspecified practical points of cooperation regarding the energy sector during a meeting at UN headquarters in the Kosovar capital, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2003 and 13 February 2004). Several thousand ethnic Albanians demonstrated nearby, saying that it is too early to hold any sort of talks with the Serbian authorities. Many Kosovars suspect that the EU aims to pressure them into some sort of joint state with Serbia, which all Kosovar political parties reject. PM

U.S. OFFICIAL DENIES LINK BETWEEN BECHTEL DEAL IN ROMANIA, IRAQ PROJECTS
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Market Access and Compliance William Lash denied in Bucharest on 4 March that there is any connection between the U.S.-based Bechtel being awarded a major highway-construction project in Romania and Romanian participation in reconstruction projects in Iraq, Mediafax reported. Lash said "there is no such deal and there could not be one." Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said Romania chose Bechtel for the $2.5 billion project to build a highway between Brasov and Bors because it is a leading global highway-construction company and is definitely capable of seeing the project through. Nastase also denied any link between this project and Romanian participation as a subcontractor in reconstruction projects in Iraq, for which the U.S. government has awarded Bechtel numerous contracts. Meanwhile, Flux cited Lash as saying the United States considers Romania an important partner in the process of rebuilding Iraq, and that Romania stands to benefit from participating in the process. MS

ROMANIA'S HUNGARIAN PARTY WILL NOT SANCTION REBELS
Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) Chairman Bela Marko said on 4 March that the party will not impose sanctions on six UDMR lawmakers who, in defiance of the party's position, recently submitted a draft law on territorial autonomy for regions inhabited by the Szeklers, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). According to Marko, the UDMR is "a large and tolerant organization. Those who belong to this small group [of Szekler-autonomy supporters] cannot make up their minds in what direction to head. We are patient and allow them to solve their dilemmas and to clarify their intentions." He said the UDMR will discipline the six only if they set up a rival political organization. Meanwhile, UDMR Covasna County branch Chairman Albert Almos said on 4 March that the UDMR will not expel members who have decided to run in the June local elections on the lists of the Hungarian Civic Union (UCM). Amos said the UCM members, some of whom are also members of the UDMR, seek expulsion in order to portray themselves as victims (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2004). MS

TRANSDNIESTER LEADER DISMISSES OSCE CONCERNS OVER WEAPONS PRODUCTION
Separatist leader Igor Smirnov on 5 March reiterated that Transdniester produces small amounts of weapons for its own use but does not engage in arms trading, ITAR-TASS reported. Smirnov was responding to concerns expressed by William Hill, the OSCE mission head in Chisinau, who recently told an international conference on small-arms trading in the Black Sea area that he is concerned that weapons are being produced in the separatist region with no supervision on the part of Moldovan authorities or international organizations. Smirnov first acknowledged small-arms production in the region in early February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2004). "Tiraspol authorities have several times invited the OSCE and other international organizations to carry out inspections at enterprises that produce the weapons. But nobody has responded to those invitations," Smirnov told journalists on 5 March. MS

U.S. REPORT SAYS BULGARIA BECOMING MAJOR PRODUCER OF ILLEGAL DRUGS
The 2003 "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report" released by the U.S. State Department on 1 March states that Bulgaria not only remains a major thoroughfare for "illegal flows of drugs, people, contraband, and money" but has also changed from an "important drug-transit country into being as well an important producer of narcotics" (see http://www.state.gov/g/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2003/index.htm). "Heroin moves through Bulgaria from Southwest Asia, while chemicals used for making heroin move from the former Yugoslavia to Turkey and beyond," the report says. "Bulgaria is beginning to replace Turkey as a center of synthetic-drug production, and laboratories are increasingly being moved to Bulgaria." Although the report states that the Bulgarian government has made considerable accomplishment in combating drug trafficking and production, it adds that corruption remains a serious problem. In its conclusion, the report suggests that legal reforms be made and the crime-fighting bodies be strengthened. UB

BULGARIAN SOCIALISTS MOVE NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE
The opposition Socialist Party (BSP) on 4 March officially initiated a vote of no confidence in the government, mediapool.bg reported. BSP Chairman Sergey Stanishev said his party decided to move the vote because of the government's alleged "social irresponsibility," which he said violates the constitution, which describes the country as a "social state." He added that certain constitutional passages pertain to the government's responsibilities regarding labor, health care, and education. Stanishev accused the government of "genocide and discrimination" regarding its treatment of the disabled. He also alleged that approximately 1.5 million of the country's 8 million citizens are left without health care because of problems in the state health-insurance system. Deputy Prime Minister Plamen Panayotov characterized the motion as the Socialists' latest attempt to obstruct the country's accession to the EU and NATO. The no-confidence vote stands little chance of succeeding, as the conservative opposition parties have announced that they will vote for the governing coalition of the National Movement Simeon II and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. UB

FOREIGN NGOS CONCERNED ABOUT NEW RULES IN UZBEKISTAN


Under a 1999 law that only began being enforced in December, international aid groups in Uzbekistan must now register with the Justice Ministry. Previously, in a relatively simple process, foreign organizations received an annual accreditation from the Foreign Ministry. The new registration procedure, by contrast, requires the submission of a long list of documents to the Justice Ministry.

Alisher Ilkhamov, the executive director of the U.S.-based Open Society Institute (OSI) in Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL: "For registration, we have to submit the charter of our organization and of our parent organization, the sources of our funding, description of the activities of our parent organization, etc. So it's a quite big number of documents."

This week, Uzbek authorities gave the 90 or so foreign groups operating in the country until the end of this month to meet the new requirements. Twelve of them had received their official registration as of 1 March.

According to a December decree, foreign groups operating in Uzbekistan must provide information about their employees and the sources of their financing. Ilkhamov says it is as yet unclear how often foreign NGOs will have to submit such reporting.

Authorities in Tashkent insist the registration with the Justice Ministry is strictly a procedural matter and will not prevent NGOs from conducting their business. As justification, they refer to UN Security Council Resolution 1373 of September 2001 concerning state obligations to combat terrorism. But some of the new rules are causing concern, in particular the obligation to confer with the Justice Ministry on the holding of events, meetings, and gatherings. NGOs also are required to allow representatives from the ministry to attend such meetings.

Ilkhamov notes that it will be technically difficult to get approval for his organization's every action. "We make the decisions concerning our funding on a monthly basis. So, if one organization applies to us for a conference within two to three months, such training can take place. During these two months, we'll have -- according to the new regulation -- to apply to the Ministry of Justice to get permission for it. This can take time, and delays with the decision [can occur]," he said.

Ilkhamov also noted that the department dealing with foreign NGOs in the Ministry of Justice consists of only five people.

Rachel Denber, acting director of the Europe and Central Asia division of the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch, shares Ilkhamov's worries. She said the new restrictions are "cause for concern. And that's quite intrusive. You don't see that in the NGO laws -- I think -- of other European countries. Conducting activities autonomously is a core feature of a truly open civil society."

Daniel Farcis is general administrator of the Paris-based NGO Action Against Hunger. In France, he says, NGOs working domestically are required to submit annual declarations to the Interior Ministry. NGOs working abroad also additionally submit their declarations to the Foreign Ministry. These declarations include reports of their professional and financial activities. All disbursed funds for projects must be detailed.

NGOs in France can eventually be subject to controls from state bodies such as the Audit Chamber and the General Inspector of Social Affairs. NGOs also must submit to the prefecture, or local state representative, a list of communication and fund-raising operations planned for the year.

Farcis says such obligations are constraining but do not constitute strong state control. "It is not very complicated once we get familiar with the process," he said. "[However,] it is constraining in the sense that we have to permanently respect the rules and the deadlines. At the same time, it is important because it allows avoiding that certain associations can make whatever they want. Having said that, it is not a very strong control. It's more an administrative control."

Uzbekistan has a track record of arbitrary interference with the operations of NGOs and of harassing human rights defenders. Two noted international organizations -- the Brussels-based International Crisis Group and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting -- have previously been denied registration in the country.Antoine Blua is a Prague-based RFE/RL correspondent.

NEW RECONSTRUCTION TEAM ESTABLISHED IN SOUTH-CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN
A Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) has been established in Ghazni Province, AFP reported on 4 March. The new PRT, which is led by the United States, brings the number of civil-military teams in the country to 10. The new PRT will comprise approximately 50 U.S. military personnel and serve about 1.86 million people in south-central Afghanistan. "Wherever Provincial Reconstruction Teams go, security follows," U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said. The United States leads seven PRTs in the country, while New Zealand and the United Kingdom each command one team, and Germany leads another PRT under NATO's command (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004). AT

SELF-DESCRIBED TALIBAN SPOKESMAN CLAIMS TROOPS KILLED SEVEN AFGHAN SOLDIERS
Abdul Latif Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the Taliban movement, said fighters loyal to the ousted Afghan regime killed seven Afghan soldiers on 4 March, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 5 March. Hakimi claimed the soldiers were killed in an attack on a security checkpoint near the Maruf District in the southern Afghan Kandahar Province. Hakimi's claim has not been confirmed by independent sources. In a statement in February, the ousted Taliban movement named Hamed Agha as its only authorized spokesman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). AT

AFGHAN ADMINISTRATION SACKS MAYOR OF KABUL
Officials announced on 4 March that Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has responded to long-standing complaints of widespread corruption and land grabs among senior local officials by dismissing Kabul Mayor Mohammad Anwar Jegdalak, Reuters reported. In September, Kabul Police commander General Abdul Basir Salangi was sacked in connection with the destruction of more than 30 homes in Kabul's Shayr Pur District to make room for luxury homes intended for use by government officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5, 16, and 18 September 2003). The incident drew international condemnation, and Karzai ordered the plan halted. Reuters reported that "construction is still going on" in that district of the capital. AT

TAJIK OFFICIAL DOWNPLAYS AFGHAN DRUG TRANSIT THROUGH TAJIKISTAN
Tajik Drug Control Agency Director Ghaffor Mirzoev told a 3 March news conference that Afghanistan exports only 15 percent of its drug output through Tajikistan, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 4 March. The comments came at a news conference to present a UN report that cites the Afghan-Tajik border as a major heroin transit point (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2004). According to Mirzoev, 85 percent of Afghanistan's drug output reaches the outside world through other countries, including Iran, Turkmenistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Mirzoev also noted that 90 percent of the Afghan drug output transported through Tajikistan proceeds on to Russia. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, 9.6 tons of narcotics were confiscated in Tajikistan in 2003, including 5.6 tons of heroin. DK

IRAN, PAKISTAN SIGN ECONOMIC AGREEMENTS
Iran and Pakistan signed seven agreements on 4 March aimed at boosting economic ties and improving communications, AFP and IRNA reported. Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi and Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali oversaw the signing of documents prepared by a joint economic commission and designed to ease trade and improve land and air links, AFP stated. The neighboring states are to extend preferential trade conditions, avoid double taxation of citizens, reduce tariffs, ease visa procedures, and promote exports, IRNA reported. Aref-Yazdi and Jamali also discussed regional politics and a proposed gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan. Iranian Transport Minister Ahmad Khorram, who represented Iran on the joint commission, earlier discussed railway links with the Pakistani finance minister. A proposed rail upgrade between Quetta in Pakistan and Zahedan in southeastern Iran would link Pakistan to European markets through Iran and Syria, AFP reported. Aref-Yazdi was also expected to meet President Pervez Musharraf, IRNA reported on 3 March. VS

OFFICIAL SAYS U.S. WILL NOT PRESS FOR IRAN NUCLEAR SANCTIONS
Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton said on 4 March that the United States will not press the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to declare Iran in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) next week, which could prompt UN sanctions, AFP reported. But he added that "we are absolutely determined not to reduce the pressure on Iran" to reveal every detail of a nuclear program the United States considers suspect, AFP reported. "We think that the pressure [so far] has been critical to their revealing the pieces about their nuclear program that they have already revealed," Bolton said. The IAEA recently cited improved Iranian cooperation but also selective secrecy regarding uranium enrichment, a potential stage in making nuclear bombs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February and 2 March 2004). In the absence of support among Western allies for sanctions, Washington wants the IAEA governing board to criticize Tehran "in the harshest possible terms" for its continued secrecy, Reuters cited unnamed diplomats as saying on 4 March. VS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT READY TO EXPLAIN CONDUCT IN ELECTIONS
Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said on 3 March that he has "no problem answering questions" by legislators critical of his conduct in the 20 February parliamentary elections, the daily "Entekhab" reported the next day. The president stated before the elections that he would not hold elections if it any hopefuls were unlawfully barred from participating by the Guardians Council, a supervisory body. The council barred thousands of mostly reformist hopefuls, but the elections went ahead on the orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Legislators recently wrote a letter to the president, asking for an explanation, "Entekhab" reported. "Deputies have a right to ask questions, but I do not think it necessary. We can sit and talk but...I have no problem answering questions or attending parliament," "Entekhab" quoted Khatami as saying. VS

SHI'ITE GROUPS CALL FOR DELAY IN SIGNING OF IRAQI INTERIM CONSTITUTION
Five Shi'ite members of the Iraqi Governing Council reportedly refused to ratify the Transitional Administrative Law that was set to be signed on 5 March, AP reported the same day. The members were said to be contesting concessions made to Kurds in the document and the structure of the presidency. Recent media reports have indicated that the document calls for one president and one prime minister (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 5 March 2004). "There are some reservations. We are trying to sort the problems out now," Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) spokesman Hamid al-Bayati said on 5 March. The Shi'ites' announcement of their refusal to sign on to the document reportedly came just minutes before the planned signing ceremony. There was no immediate official word on when the signing was expected to take place. KR

EXPLOSIONS ROCK BAGHDAD, MOSUL, AHEAD OF EXPECTED CONSTITUTION SIGNING
A series of explosions were reported in Baghdad and Mosul on the morning of 5 March, just hours before the expected signing of the Iraqi Transitional Administrative Law -- the precursor to a permanent constitution (see above) -- international media reported. The U.S. military reported that six or seven blasts took place at the U.S. base at Baghdad International Airport, but no injuries were reported. Meanwhile, police in the Al-Amiriyah district reported that a roadside bomb went off there, leaving a crater in the road but causing no injuries. Al-Arabiyah television also reported at least one large explosion in Mosul on 5 March, but the cause of the explosion was not immediately identified. Tension is running high throughout Iraq this week following the 2 March Ashura bombings in Baghdad and Karbala (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 5 March 2004). KR

FIFTEEN TERRORISM SUSPECTS HELD IN IRAQ
Iraqi police have arrested 15 suspects in connection to recent terrorist attacks in Iraq, washingtonpost.com reported on 5 March. Fourteen of the suspects -- all reportedly Iraqis -- were arrested in Ba'qubah on 3 March. An unidentified military official said that one Iraqi is suspected of commanding a cell of Wahhabi Muslims. Wahhabi Islam, which is primarily practiced in Saudi Arabia, is also the sect of Islam practiced by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The website reported that another individual was captured south of Baghdad. He was reportedly wearing a police uniform and carrying fake police identification. Iraqi Police Major Muhammad Dayikh Albu Say'a said the man confessed to being part of a group of what the newspaper called "mercenaries" that attacked Karbala and Baghdad on 2 March (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 5 March 2004). The police major alleged that the arrested man was planning to blow up two police stations. KR

U.S. GENERAL SAYS HE WILL NOT ALLOW SHI'A TO OPERATE IN ARMED MILITIAS
United States Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General John Abizaid told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on 4 March that he will not allow Shi'a groups in Iraq to form militias as protection against terrorist attacks, ft.com reported on 5 March. Abizaid told the congressional committee that while groups such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) 10,000-strong Badr Brigades are welcome to join the Iraqi Army and other security forces, they will not be allowed to operate outside of that structure. He added that if he were to allow Badr to reconstitute its forces, "it would be a destabilizing event because it would give the impression that ethnic militia are standing up, and create the impression that they are standing up for other than strictly defensive measures, which would not be good for Iraq." KR

GROUP DISTRIBUTES LEAFLETS CLAIMING AL-ZARQAWI DEAD
A group identifying itself as Mujahedin Allahu Akbar distributed leaflets in Al-Fallujah this week claiming that suspected Al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi was killed in the northern Iraqi mountains near Al-Sulaymaniyah during a U.S. raid in the area last year, AP reported on 4 March. While the leaflet did not provide the specific date for the alleged U.S. raid or for al-Zarqawi's purported death, it is presumably referring to the March bombings of an Ansar Al-Islam stronghold in northern Iraq just days into Operation Iraqi Freedom (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 25 March 2003). The leaflets further claimed that a letter held by coalition officials in Iraq and purportedly written by Al-Zarqawi (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 12 February 2004) is a fake. KR

EUROPEAN COMMISSION APPROVES 2004 AID PROGRAM FOR IRAQ
The European Commission on 4 March approved its 2004 aid program to assist Iraqi reconstruction, according to a press release posted on the commission's Rapid website (http://europe.eu.int/rapid/start/welcome.htm). The aid program identified three priority areas for assistance: restoring the delivery of key public services; boosting employment and reducing poverty; and strengthening governance, civil society, and human rights. The commission will disburse 160 million euros (currently $195 million) of the 200 million euros pledged at the 23-24 October Madrid conference on Iraq. "Our aim is to help the Iraqi authorities meet the expectations of the local population and bring some tangible improvements in living conditions," the press release quoted External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten as saying. Some 90 million euros from the funds will be allocated this year for public services such as health care and education, the provision of clean drinking water, and improved sanitation. Sixty million euros will aid employment initiatives and poverty reduction, while 10 million euros will go to governance, human rights, and civil-society programs. KR

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