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Newsline - March 10, 2004

President Vladimir Putin signed a series of documents on 9 March that eliminated 13 federal ministries, two state committees, one federal commission, four federal services, and four federal agencies, RosBalt reported, citing the government press service. At the same time, five new ministries, five new federal services, and one new federal agency were created based on the old entities (for a list of the new and old entities, see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 11 March 2004). Among the ministries that were cut were: Antimonopoly, Atomic Energy, Health, Media, Property Relations, Tax, Culture, Industry and Science, Energy, Communications, Education, Transportation, and Labor. Also abolished were State Fisheries Committees and the State Sports Committee. The new ministries created are: Transportation and Communications, Industry and Energy, Culture and Information, Health and Social Development, and Education and Science. JAC

Writing on on 9 March, Center for Political Technologies Deputy Director Aleksei Makarkin noted that the only new appointee associated with the so-called Family of the reign of former President Boris Yeltsin is former Pension Fund Chairman Mikhail Zurabov, who has been named health and social development minister. Among the former Yeltsin-era figures who lost their jobs are former Education Minister Vladimir Filippov, former Property Relations Minister Farit Gazizullin, former Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, and former Labor Minister Aleksandr Pochinok, according to "Kommersant-Daily." Former Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo also served under Yeltsin. JAC

In a series of announcements on 10 March, Prime Minister Fradkov said that several ministers from the previous government will stay on, occupying sub-cabinet-level positions with virtually identical responsibilities to those they had previously, RTR and other Russian media reported. Former Education Minister Vladimir Filippov will become deputy education and science minister in charge of education policy. Former Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi will become director of the new Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency. Former Media Minister Lesin will become deputy culture and mass communications minister, overseeing the media. Former Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev will become director of the new Federal Atomic Energy Agency. Former Labor Minister Pochinok will become director of the new Federal Labor and Social Protection Agency. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Aleshin will become director of the new Federal Industry Agency. "Kommersant-Daily" on 10 March speculated that Former Energy Minister Igor Yusufov will serve either as a deputy to Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko or as head of the new Federal Energy Agency. RC/JAC

President Putin dismissed Viktor Kazantsev as presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District on 9 March, Interfax reported. Putin named former Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Yakovlev to replace Kazantsev. Yakovlev, who served previously as governor of St. Petersburg, was appointed deputy prime minister with responsibility for housing, communal-services reform, and construction and urban development in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 June 2003). LF

President Putin's appointment of former first deputy presidential administration head Dmitrii Kozak as head of the government staff has prompted speculation that Kozak will play a prominent -- if behind-the-scenes -- role in the new government. "Kommersant-Daily" on 10 March predicted that Kozak will likely act as a kind of second prime minister. The daily recalled that Kozak was put in charge of reforming the government when he was named first deputy head of the presidential administration in October. suggested on 9 March that Kozak will be a "shadow" prime minister, keeping an eye on the prime minister and the cabinet for the president. Foundation for Effective Politics head Gleb Pavlovskii told RIA-Novosti that Kozak's appointment will ensure that the "government will not be able to pursue any kind of shadow policy in opposition to the Kremlin, as it was doing earlier." One theory put forward to explain Putin's 24 February dismissal of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is that the president was annoyed at the government's failure to pursue tax reform more vigorously (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). JAC

One of the most significant changes announced during President Putin's 9 March cabinet reshuffle was the appointment of Russian Ambassador to the UN Sergei Lavrov, 53, as foreign minister. "The main accomplishment of President Putin's first term was the achievement of consensus in society about Russia's national interests," Lavrov told ORT on 10 March. He added that the overall government restructuring should help the Foreign Ministry to promote Russia's interests abroad. At the same time, Lavrov said that he will draw on his experience at the UN, where he has been Russian ambassador since 1994. "I know all these [international] problems thoroughly through the prism of the UN and I hope that this will help me in my post as foreign minister," Lavrov told Interfax on 10 March. Lavrov told NTV the same day that he will soon leave for New York on his first trip abroad as foreign minister, where he will complete his work at the UN and meet with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and representatives of the permanent Security Council member countries. RC

UN Secretary-General Annan lauded Foreign Minister Lavrov's appointment on 9 March Reuters reported. "I have learned to appreciate both his wisdom and his wit and I consider him a friend," Annan said. EU foreign- and security-policy High Representative Javier Solana also praised Lavrov, saying he has worked closely with him and believes the appointment will help promote closer relations between Russia and the EU, ITAR-TASS reported. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell congratulated Lavrov on his promotion, "The Moscow Times" reported on 10 March. RC

Moscow flatly denies recent Western media reports that Russia helped the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in its efforts to develop banned missiles, ITAR-TASS reported on 9 March, quoting Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov. "It is true that the Soviet Union cooperated with Iraq in that sphere, but at that time there were no international sanctions and no international instruments that restricted [such] cooperation," Fedotov said. He denied that Russia or the Soviet Union ever assisted Hussein in efforts to develop chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. He noted that a report by the UN Monitoring Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC) listed only U.S. and European firms as having been involved in such work. Meanwhile, Federation Council Chairman and presidential candidate Sergei Mironov told ITAR-TASS on 9 March that the UN should take responsibility for ensuring the implementation of the newly ratified Iraqi interim constitution, and expressed the hope that "legitimate bodies of power will soon appear in Iraq." RC

Several containers of highly enriched uranium from Libya arrived at the Nuclear Reactor Research Institute in Ulyanovsk Oblast on 9 March, ITAR-TASS reported. The uranium, which was originally shipped to Libya from the Soviet Union under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) control in the mid-1980s, was enriched at a Libyan research reactor near Tripoli. The approximately 16 kilograms of fuel "is almost 90 percent enriched," an institute spokesman told the news agency. He added that the uranium will be reprocessed and used to fuel Russian nuclear-power plants. Libya recently agreed to abandon and dismantle all its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, and has allowed intrusive inspections by IAEA experts. RC

The "largest election scandal" of this presidential election season is currently under way in Krasnoyarsk, according to on 9 March. A correspondent for local television station Afontovo managed to film early voting in a hall of a raion administration in Krasnoyarsk on 5 March. Busloads of teachers were brought to the administration building ostensibly to celebrate International Women's Day, but after the celebration, the teachers reportedly voted. The website noted that it is difficult to explain why a group of teachers would come to vote early, particularly when it is difficult to argue that they cannot vote on 14 March, which is a Sunday, when schools are closed or that they will all be on vacation at the same time. The raion prosecutor and police are investigating the report. A city election official told that if it can proven that the voting was organized by a specific candidate, then that candidate would lose his or her registration. JAC

Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov told Ekho Moskvy on 9 March that calls to boycott the 14 March presidential election could be illegal if they take the form of picketing polling stations or other similar actions. He said that everyone is free to voice their private opinions, but added that the Supreme Court has ruled that any calls aimed at achieving concrete election results, including calls for a boycott, can be considered campaigning under election law. Veshnyakov also said that it is illegal for candidates to use the media to promote other candidates -- apparently a response to recent accusations that Federation Council Chairman and presidential candidate Mironov has been using his free television and radio airtime to urge voters to support President Putin. "If we get information of that kind, the TsIK will subject them to scrutiny," Veshnyakov said. RC

Presidential candidate and former co-Chairwoman of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) Irina Khakamada announced on 9 March that she intends to set up a new democratic opposition movement called Free Russia, Russian media reported. Khakamada told reporters that she sees herself as the leader of this new movement, which will be created after the 14 March presidential election. According to RosBalt, Khakamada emphasized that the new movement will be distinct from SPS. Members of the new movement, she said, will be "not former SPS members, but people from the streets." She also noted that she is ready to consider inviting existing parties and organizations to join Free Russia. Khakamada did not say whether she intends to quit SPS. JAC

In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" on 9 March, All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) Deputy Chairman Andrei Bystritskii denied that the 7 March broadcast of presidential candidate Khakamada's meeting with her campaign workers, which was billed as being aired live, was deliberately cut. This week, Khakamada complained that a question to her from actress Natalya Fateeva that was critical of President Putin had been cut from the program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2004). Bystritskii said Fateeva was not filmed asking her question because of "technical difficulties." But he added that "to ensure that there are no questions and in an effort to meet the presidential candidate's wishes on International Women's Day, we will show this recording in full" on 9 March. He said that they had a back-up recording of the event from another camera. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 10 March, the program was shown in its entirety during the 11 p.m. newscast. Khakamada's campaign manager, Marina Litvinovich, said that Khakamada does not plan to withdraw her complaint to the TsIK regarding the 12 February live broadcast of President Putin's meeting with his campaign workers because the state television channels still have not shown candidate Sergei Glazev's meeting with his campaign staff. JAC

Magomed Khambiev, who served as defense minister under President Aslan Maskhadov in 1997-99 and since late 1999 as one of Maskhadov's top field commanders, turned himself in to the pro-Moscow Chechen security forces because those forces had taken hostage and threatened to kill members of his family, reported on 9 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2004). Ramzan Kadyrov, who is the son of pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov and commands Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov's security force, claimed that Khambiev surrendered because he realized that "further resistance would be senseless." On 9 March, Ramzan Kadyrov told Interfax that Khambiev might qualify for amnesty, as he is not believed to have been involved in either abductions or murders. LF

Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian all informed Hungary's newly appointed Ambassador to Armenia Ferenc Kontra on 9 March that they expect the Azerbaijani Army officer who has reportedly admitted to murdering an Armenian fellow participant in a NATO-sponsored training course in Budapest last month "will be punished with all the strictness of the law," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 February 2004). Kontra told RFE/RL that the criminal investigation into the murder is drawing to a close and that the presumed killer, Ramil Safarov, will go on trial "soon." "There is no doubt" that the killing was premeditated, Kontra said, and that Safarov has confessed to preparing it. LF

Speaking at a press conference in Baku on 9 March, Allakhshukur Pasha-zade, chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus, criticized a recent Baku court ruling requiring the congregation of the Djuma mosque in Baku's old town to vacate the premises by 1 March, Turan and the online paper reported on 9 and 10 March, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the mosque's popular young imam, 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). Ibrahimoglu had urged his parishioners to vote for opposition Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar in that ballot. Alluding to those charges, Pashazade said that even though specific individuals might be guilty of certain offenses, it is unjust to close the mosque and evict the congregation. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Senate Helsinki Commission have both condemned the closure of the mosque as a violation of freedom of religion, Turan reported on 5 March. LF

Ilham Aliyev met in Baku on 9 March with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe to discuss the Karabakh conflict, the threat of international terrorism, and expanding bilateral economic cooperation, Turan and reported. Aliyev expressed the hope that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, of which the United States is one of three co-chairs, will take more precise and effective measures to end the Karabakh conflict. Pascoe predicted an imminent "breakthrough" in the OSCE's ongoing efforts to mediate a settlement. Pascoe also met on 9 March with leaders of opposition political parties and representatives of NGOs, who informed him that the situation in Azerbaijan has deteriorated since Aliyev's election in October. LF

Meeting on 9 March with a visiting delegation from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colonel General Safar Abiev said that "today the No. 1 priority for Azerbaijan's armed forces is the liberation of our lands from enemy occupation," according to Trend news agency, as cited by "It would be good to resolve the [Karabakh] conflict peacefully, on the basis of international law and Azerbaijan's territorial integrity," Abiev added. "But if this does not happen, we shall rid our territory of the enemy by every possible means." Abiev has consistently adopted a hawkish position on Karabakh. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili met late on 9 March in Paris with his French counterpart Jacques Chirac, who assured Saakashvili of his support for Tbilisi's efforts to integrate into European structures while at the same time seeking to improve relations with Russia, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. The two also discussed the possibility of French financial aid for Georgia. Saakashvili also met on 9 March with French Senate Chairman Christian Poncelet and with businesspeople, whom he encouraged to invest in the Georgian economy. LF

President Saakashvili told journalists in Paris on 9 March that he is determined to bring the Adjar Autonomous Republic, together with the breakaway unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, back under the control of the central Georgian government, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili recalled that Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze still has six days to comply with his demand that the security officials allegedly responsible for beating a Georgian journalist last week be apprehended (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004), and warned that Abashidze and other leading Adjar officials will be arrested if they fail to meet that deadline. Saakashvili further stressed the Adjar authorities' responsibility to ensure that local voting in the 28 March Georgian parliamentary election is free and fair. LF

In Tbilisi, Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze argued on 9 March that the standoff between the central and Adjar governments that resulted from President Saakashvili's threat to abolish the Adjar Security Ministry should be resolved peacefully, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). Plamen Nikolaev, who is Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer's special representative, offered expert advice within the framework of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission on the constitutional aspects of abolishing the ministry. LF

The Senate -- the upper chamber of Kazakhstan's legislature -- elected as its speaker on 10 March Nurtay Abyqaev, who heads the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Under the Kazakh Constitution, the president's duties devolve on the Senate speaker should the president resign, die, or become incapacitated. Abyqaev served in the 1990s as head of the presidential administration, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Great Britain, and National Security Council secretary. He was dismissed from the latter post in August 1999 for his involvement in the clandestine sale to North Korea of obsolete MiG fighters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 August 1999) but was later named first deputy foreign minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 April 2000). Kazakh commentators characterize him as 100 percent loyal to the president and as the second-most-powerful official in Kazakhstan. LF

The heads of two northern raions in Kyrgyzstan were removed from their posts on 6 March by presidential decree, reported on 9 March. Mukash Mambetov of Aksy Raion and Elmir Asanov of Tyup Raion were replaced with Emil Baratbaev and Kurmanbek Namazaliev, respectively. The official announcement said only that the departing district heads are "moving to other work." Both raions are part of Issyk-Kul Oblast, where the presidential administration is conducting a pilot project to decentralize state government and develop local self-rule. DK

President Askar Akaev met in Bishkek on 9 March with Jerzy Skuratowicz, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) resident representative for Kyrgyzstan, and Ercan Murat, UNDP resident representative for Afghanistan, reported the same day. They discussed the possibility of holding in Bishkek a UNDP-sponsored conference on regional cooperation in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran, and Pakistan. The UN House in Bishkek hosted a meeting the same day between Kyrgyz ministers, representatives of international organizations, and NGOs, Kyrgyzinfo reported on 9 March. The participants discussed the implementation of the National Poverty Reduction Strategy and the Comprehensive Development Framework. Skuratowicz praised the discussion as a means of facilitating dialogue between all interested parties. DK

Joint exercises involving Russia's 201st Motorized Infantry Division, Tajikistan's 3rd Motorized Brigade, and Russian border guards from the Panj border detachment began on 9 March, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The exercises will continue until 13 March at training grounds outside Dushanbe and along Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan. The exercises, which are being led by 201st Division commander Yurii Perminov, are set to take place in three stages, concluding with live-fire drills at the Lohur range near Dushanbe, Tajik Television reported on 9 March. Tajik Defense Minister Colonel General Sherali Khairulloev will observe the final stage. The exercises are intended to improve cooperation in border defense and joint combat actions against international terrorism, RIA-Novosti reported. DK

Major-General Ramil Nadyrov, who is first deputy defense minister and chief of staff, met in Dushanbe on 9 March with the editors in chief of Dushanbe-based publications to discuss media coverage of the country's armed forces, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 10 March. Nadyrov advocated "active cooperation" between the media and the military in order to raise the prestige of the latter, and appealed to journalists to refrain from superficial and biased reporting of the activities of the armed forces. LF

State-owned oil company Turkmenneft produced 1.5 million tons of oil in the first two months of this year, reported on 9 March. The results represent a 2 percent year-on-year increase. During the same period, Turkmen refineries processed 1.1 million tons of oil. The news agency noted that Turkmenistan's refineries process not only domestic crude oil, but also crude oil from Uzbekistan's Kokdumalok oil field. According to Turkmenistan's National Statistics Institute, natural-gas production for the first two months of this year marked a 6 percent year-on-year increase, rising to 12.8 billion cubic meters, reported on 9 March. Of that total, 9.2 billion cubic meters of gas was sold to foreign customers. The report also noted that exports of liquefied natural gas for the two-month period jumped 75 percent year-on-year to 62,900 tons. DK

Zhang Deguang, executive secretary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), arrived in Tashkent on 9 March for a three-day official visit, Uzbek Television reported the same day. Deguang spent his first day in the Uzbek capital in what he described as "extremely fruitful" talks with Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev. Deguang and Safaev discussed the recent opening of the SCO regional antiterrorism center in Tashkent and the upcoming SCO summit slated to be held in Tashkent in June, Uzbek Radio reported. Deguang told a press conference after the talks that the SCO will never become an anti-Western military or political alliance, RIA-Novosti reported on 9 March. Deguang stressed that the SCO promotes a "policy of peace.... We are developing close cooperation between the member states of the SCO, but we are not moving toward a military alliance." The member states of the SCO are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. DK

Police arrested a student activist and former Belarusian Republican Youth Union member on 9 March, just one week after he persuaded roughly 100 fellow students to join him in abandoning that youth group and join the opposition youth organization Zubr, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Mikita Sasim, a student of the Light Industry College in Baranavichy (Brest Oblast), was arrested along with two colleagues, Katsyaryna Bankevich and Andrey Chyzh, while they were handing out a youth newspaper at the college. They were accused by a teacher of disrupting classes and reportedly face charges of "petty hooliganism." JM

An estimated crowd of 5,000-7,000 people gathered near a statue to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv on 9 March, the 190th anniversary of the poet's birth, to protest authorities' perceived attacks on freedom of expression in Ukraine, local and international news agencies reported. The rally, under the slogan "Freedom to the Word," was organized by Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, and a number of media representatives. "The authorities persecute freedom of speech even more impudently than the Okhrana [tsarist secret police] persecuted the publication of Shevchenko's works," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( quoted from a resolution adopted by the rally. Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko told the rally that current efforts at constitutional reform represent a "coup d'etat" intended to install incumbent President Leonid Kuchma as Ukraine's prime minister after the 2004 presidential election. "Ukraine is living under a criminal authority," Yushchenko added. Yuliya Tymoshenko called on demonstrators to be ready for a "serious civic uprising" in the event that the pro-Kuchma camp pushes its constitutional reforms through. JM

Our Ukraine leader Yushchenko told the same 9 March rally in Kyiv that his bloc has reached "complete understanding" with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc regarding joint actions by opposition parties in the 2004 presidential election, Interfax reported. "Three weeks ago we proposed a political manifesto, which gives an answer to how the three political forces [Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party] should prepare for the October presidential election with a single platform and a single candidate," Yushchenko said. "I am telling you now that we have reached complete understanding with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc within the framework of this document. I hope the Socialist Party will give the same reply." JM

The parliament on 9 March again passed amendments to the law on elections to the European Parliament that President Arnold Ruutel recently refused to promulgate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004), BNS reported. The amendments would replace the current closed-list system for the elections with open lists under which candidates receiving the most votes would win regardless of their position on party tickets. The vote was 64 to 31, as compared to 61 to 29 when parliament passed the amendments on 11 February. Ruutel said in a television interview in the evening of 9 March that he plans to sign the amendments into law. Meanwhile, one of Ruutel's legal advisers, Arno Almann, indicated earlier in the day that the president will refuse to sign another bill concerning appointments of county governors and the creation of a second interior minister position, on the grounds that the bill is unconstitutional. SG

Parliament on 9 March approved the coalition government headed by Indulis Emsis (Union of Greens and Farmers, or ZZS) by a vote of 56 to 33, BNS reported. In addition to the right-of-center coalition members -- ZZS, the People's Party, and Latvia's First Party (LPP) -- the new government was supported by the leftist National Harmony Party (TSP) and New Era deputy Andrejs Radzevics, who will be minister of regional-development and local-government affairs. New Era and For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK voted against, while the Latvian Socialist Party and For Human Rights in a United Latvia did not participate. Seven ministerial positions remained from the previous government: the LPP retained the slots of deputy prime minister (Ainars Slesers), economy (Juris Lujans), children and family affairs (Ainars Bastiks), and social integration (Nils Muiznieks); and the ZZS retained those of agriculture (Martins Roze), environment (Raimonds Vejonis), and welfare (Dagnija Stake). The LPP also named the interior (Eriks Jekabsons) and education and science (Eduards Radzevics) ministers. The People's Party appointed five ministers -- culture (Helena Demakova), defense (Atis Slakteris), finance (Oskars Spurdzins), foreign affairs (Rihards Piks), and justice (Vineta Muizniece). Emsis and Slesers will also temporarily head the Health and Transportation ministries, respectively. SG

Parliament on 10 March ratified the North Atlantic Treaty necessary for joining NATO by a vote of 100 to three, with one abstention, ELTA reported. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas told the 9 March parliament session that "membership in NATO and the European Union embodies all that we sought in fighting for Lithuania's freedom and independence -- a safe, self-confident state, a Lithuania without fear, where every citizen feels secure for his and his children's future," "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. President Rolandas Paksas appeared briefly at the session and urged the lawmakers to renew the country's commitment to spend at least 2 percent of GDP for national defense from 2005-09. At a later press conference, Paksas said he will propose a revised version of his request that impeachment proceedings be initiated against parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2004), correcting a formulation in his original proposal that parliament rejected on the grounds that it was not legally acceptable. SG

According to a poll conducted on 6-7 March and published by the "Rzeczpospolita" daily on 10 March, 24 percent of respondents said they want to vote for Andrzej Lepper's populist, radical farmer union Self-Defense, a 7 percentage-point gain over a similar poll taken a month ago. Self-Defense closely trails the Civic Platform, Poland's most popular party, which the poll said is backed by 26 percent of respondents. The poll also found that the Law and Justice party is supported by 13 percent of voters, while the ruling Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union bloc and the opposition League of Polish Families each polled 10 percent support. "The political scene is becoming polarized around the Civic Platform and Self-Defense," sociologist Tomasz Zukowski commented for "Rzeczpospolita." "These parties already enjoy combined support of 50 percent,... while last August they were jointly supported just by 26 percent [of voters].... It seems that the rural electorate has decided that it wants to be represented only by Self-Defense." According to the poll, the Peasant Party, which has 37 deputies in the Sejm, is now supported by 4 percent of respondents. The voting threshold for representation in the Sejm is 5 percent for parties and 8 percent for electoral blocs. JM

Deputies in the Czech lower house rejected a government bill that would have allowed a gradual 30 percent increase in regulated rents, CTK and AFP reported. The bill fell two votes short of a majority due to the absence of several coalition deputies who were on foreign trips and opposition from Deputy Tomas Vrbik, who last week resigned from the junior coalition Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) while remaining a member of its parliamentary group. The daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported on 10 March that the opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) refused to have two of its members sit out the vote, as is customary in such situations. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla called the failure "an operational accident" and said the vote does not indicate that the one-vote majority of the ruling coalition is in peril. MS

The daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported on 9 March that the chief coordinator of the Czech Trade and Industry Ministry's Iraqi aid effort, is a former member of the communist-era secret police, or StB, who also had ties to the Russian KGB, CTK reported. Frantisek Malata's official position in the ministry is reportedly low-ranking enough that he is not subject to the 1991 screening, or lustration, law that bars former senior communist officials and StB agents from holding high-ranking positions in the civil service. The daily reported that Malata joined the StB in 1970 and served as Czechoslovak commercial attache in Tanzania in the late 1980s. It also said Malata cultivated ties with the KGB and it printed a photo purportedly showing Malata posing in Tanzania with a prominent African gun dealer. Trade and Industry Ministry spokesman Ivo Mravinac called the allegations "strange." MS

President Vaclav Klaus said after meeting with Defense Minister Miroslav Kostelka and Chief of Staff General Pavel Stefka on 9 March that he backs parliament's decision to dispatch Czech soldiers to Afghanistan, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004). Commenting on the results of a recent public-opinion poll, Klaus said a difference of views on such matters between military commanders and prominent politicians on one hand, and the general public on the other, is "understandable and explicable." The poll suggested that 75 percent of Czechs disagree with sending Czech troops into combat missions in Afghanistan. MS

The opposition People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) officially submitted a motion on 9 March calling for a no-confidence vote in Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Ivan Miklos, TASR and CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 3 March 2004). Parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky must now convene an extraordinary session of the parliament within seven days. CTK reported that the motion is not backed by the necessary 76 lawmakers because of a lack of support from the Free Forum, whose members last year left the senior ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU). However, TASR cited Free Forum leader and former Defense Minister Ivan Simko as saying his group's legislators will make their decision shortly before the motion comes to a vote. The ruling center-right coalition has lost its parliamentary majority and controls just 67 seats in the 150-member legislature (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 25 February 2004). MS

Parliament approved a bill on 9 March allowing absentee balloting in future parliamentary elections, TASR and CTK reported. Slovakia's next scheduled parliamentary elections are in 2006, but a nonbinding referendum on early elections will take place on 3 April. The bill also extends the right to broadcast campaign advertising to private radio and television stations, an activity that has been limited to public broadcasters. Under the new election bill, competing parties must make a 500,000-crown ($15,322) deposit, returnable if they garner at least 3 percent of the vote. Lawmakers rejected an amendment, proposed by Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO) deputy Jozef Heriban, stipulating that at least one-third of the seats in parliament must be occupied by women, according to TASR. MS

Cross-party consultations held behind closed doors on 9 March to discuss Socialist Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's recent proposals to reduce the size of the parliament and prescribe the direct election of the president brought no results, Hungarian media reported. Parliamentary speaker Katalin Szili told reporters after the meeting that the opposition FIDESZ party proposed delaying further talks on the issue until after the 13 June European Parliament elections, while the Democratic Forum suggested that consultations resume after Hungary's EU accession on 1 May, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. Medgyessy's recent proposals also included a call for parliamentary parties to submit a single, joint list of candidates for the European legislature. "Nepszabadsag" reported that FIDESZ parliamentary group leader Janos Ader said negotiations on Medgyessy's proposals are premature, as he might not remain prime minister after the European elections. For his part, Justice Minister Peter Barandy told the daily that his ministry cannot work on a legislative framework for the proposals until there is political agreement and "minimal cooperation" among parliamentary parties. MSZ

Operations among state-run electronic media are threatened due to the lack of a chairman at the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT), leaving no one authorized to approve fund transfers for Hungarian Television, Hungarian Radio, and Duna Television, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 10 March. President Ferenc Madl and Prime Minister Medgyessy held several rounds of consultations but failed to reach agreement regarding an appropriate candidate for ORTT president, a position that has been vacant since the resignation of former ORTT Chairwoman Judit Kormendy-Ekes in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2003). Hungarian Television (MTV) needs some 728 million forints ($3.5 million) to continue operations, while Hungarian Radio needs 513 million forints and Duna Television needs 441 million forints. MS

Macedonia's acting president, Ljupco Jordanovski, called on all citizens on 9 March to participate in the presidential elections slated for 14 April, "Dnevnik" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February and 8 and 9 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February and 5 March 2004). Jordanovski noted that a minimum voter turnout of 50 percent is necessary for the elections to be valid. The largest opposition party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), has threatened to boycott the vote after the governing parties nominated Stevo Pendarovski, who was late President Boris Trajkovski's national security adviser, as head of the State Election Commission without the consent of the VMRO-DPMNE. The two ethnic Albanian opposition parties, the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), have called on all Albanian parties to nominate a joint presidential candidate, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 9 March. However, the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) indicated that it will support the candidate nominated by its coalition partner, the Social Democratic Union (SDSM), if that candidate is "acceptable to all Macedonian citizens." UB

Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic named Nikola Radovanovic, an ethnic Serb, as the country's first defense minister on 9 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February and 8 March 2004). The British-educated Radovanovic took no part in the 1992-95 war and consequently is not burdened by anything dating from that conflict, as at least two previous Bosnian Serb aspirants to the post reportedly were. Radovanovic is expected to announce soon whether he will accept the nomination, which must then be approved by the parliament. He currently heads the Peace and Security Department in the Foreign Ministry. Bosnia has already missed its initial deadline to appoint a single defense minister, which is one of the preconditions it must meet if it wants to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program at the Atlantic alliance's June Istanbul summit. PM

On 9 March, NATO's Deputy Supreme Allied Command Europe (DSACEUR), German Admiral Rainer Feist, talked about Bosnia's possible membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace program with Bosnian leaders in Sarajevo, dpa reported. Feist said he also discussed with Sulejman Terzic, who holds the chairmanship of the rotating Bosnian Presidency, "how to bring the NATO operation in Bosnia to an end" in preparation for an eventual EU security mission there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 March 2004). Feist added that the Atlantic alliance will work to ensure a "continuation of good cooperation with Bosnia-Herzegovina," probably by setting up a Sarajevo office. Finally, the Bosnian Presidency agreed to send 36 mine-clearing experts from the Bosnian military to Iraq, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. The squad will first be trained in Florida. PM

An unknown gunman using a silencer killed Kujo Krijestorac in front of his Belgrade apartment on 1 March, a spokeswoman for the Serbian capital's special court dealing with organized crime said on 9 March, Reuters reported. Krijestorac was an important witness in the trial dealing with the 12 March 2003 assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, having reportedly seen three possible assassins flee a building at the scene and identifying the person waiting for them. The spokeswoman said a statement that Krijestorac gave to an investigating judge remains legally valid and will be read at the ongoing trial of alleged assassins (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March, 9 May, and 12 December 2003). PM

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said in Zagreb on 9 March that he considers unacceptable some unspecified references to the 1991-95 conflict included in the latest indictments of Croats by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2004). The tribunal recently charged former Croatian Generals Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac with crimes against humanity and violating the laws and customs of war in connection with their roles in the August 1995 campaign against Serbian rebels that ended the war in Croatia's Krajina region. The Sanader government repeatedly says that it cooperates with the tribunal. On 9 March, leaders of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS) called for a special session of the parliament to discuss references in the indictments to the two generals' allegedly having participated in a "criminal conspiracy" along with the late President Franjo Tudjman during the conflict. For his part, former General Cermak called for calm, saying that the place to discuss the content of the indictments is in court and not in political circles. PM

In Prishtina on 9 March, Harry Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), praised the one-day talks between Serbian and Kosovar working groups on individuals reported missing before, during, and after the 1998-99 conflict, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Holkeri said that both sides showed interest in resolving the approximately 3,000 outstanding cases, adding that the next round of talks will take place in late April in Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2003 and 13 February 2004). The talks are highly controversial among Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority, most of whom regard the meetings as an opportunity for Serbia to acquire a formal role in the province's affairs. PM

The opposition National Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance announced on 9 March that its lawmakers will wear armbands bearing the EU emblem to protest perceived government failures in EU-accession negotiations, Mediafax reported. The protest action is reportedly inspired by "Japanese strikes" in which employees work wearing white armbands. In addition, the lawmakers said they are not ready to back in parliament the planned government reshuffle, calling it a "gimmick." MS

The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) on 9 March agreed to extend to the end of 2004 their cooperation in parliament and at the county level, Mediafax reported. PSD Chairman Adrian Nastase, the current prime minister, and UDMR Chairman Bela Marko said the agreement ensures Romania's political stability, thereby serving the interest of EU accession. Both sides pledge in the agreement to stifle any attempts to encourage "extremist acts" by either Romanians or Hungarians. Nastase said that the agreement on the "reconciliation park" in Arad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004) will help both sides overcome the "anxieties of the past." Marko said the protocol includes a stipulation providing for fast-track negotiations on UDMR's demand to have two Hungarian-language faculties established at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj. MS

Thirteen Romanian human-rights watchdogs, including the local branches of Freedom House, Transparency International, and the Helsinki Committee on 9 March announced their plans to set up a Coalition for a Clean Parliament ahead of this fall's elections, AP reported. The coalition intends to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by politicians in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential polls. The group is headed by political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, who is director of the Romanian Academic Society. Mungiu-Pippidi said local journalists will be hired in each county to compile information on local candidates. Data of interest includes allegations of corruption, possible conflicts of interest, and undeclared service in the communist secret police. The compiled information will be verified before being passed on to political parties to give them the opportunity to drop suspect candidates. If the parties fail to do so, the information will be handed over to the media and leaflets will be distributed to inform the electorate. "We won't publish what we can't verify," Mungiu-Pippidi told journalists. MS

President Vladimir Voronin on 9 March told visiting Romanian Foreign Intelligence Service Director General Gheorghe Fulga that the two countries' intelligence services should cooperate in their efforts to combat international terrorism, organized crime, human trafficking, and illegal migration, Flux and Infotag reported. Voronin said the authorities in Moldova seek to promote cooperation among the intelligence services of Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia to improve regional security. MS

Flux on 9 March published what it claims is the new Moldovan proposal for the country's federalization. The agency, which is linked to the opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic, said the proposals are "nearly identical" with those included in the so-called Russian "Kozak Memorandum" that Voronin refused to sign on 25 November after having initialed it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November 2003). The purported plan stipulates that the federation is to have three subjects -- Moldova, Transdniester, and Gagauz-Yeri -- and a bicameral parliament. It defines Moldova as a "neutral state" and stipulates that until complete demilitarization, each side is to keep its military forces for the "safeguarding of order on the federation's territory." No mention is made in the plan about the future of Russian forces currently stationed in Moldova. Representation on executive bodies is to be proportional to the numerical strength of the population of each of the three subjects. The document stipulates that the status of the "Moldovan and Russian languages" is to be established in the future federal constitution, and leaves to each subject the right to establish the status of those languages on its own territory. MS

Forty-one Moldovan troops who participated in humanitarian missions in Iraq for six months returned to Moldova on 9 March, Flux and Infotag reported. At the request of the United States, parliament has already approved the dispatch to Iraq of a new, 12-soldier contingent of military engineers. MS

The governing coalition of the National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) lost its majority in the 240-seat parliament as a result of the formation on 9 March of the New Time parliamentary group, reported. The governing coalition can now count on the support of 117 legislators -- 97 from the NDSV and 20 from the DPS. New Time is made up of 10 recent NDSV defectors and one independent legislator who earlier left the NDSV (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 2003 and 9 March 2004). Miroslav Sevlievski, a former member of the NDSV's Political Council, will head the new group. Lutfi Mestan of the governing DPS said "it would be unrealistic to say that we will not have problems governing the country" as a result of the split, adding that the responsibilities in the governing coalition must be reassessed. UB

New Time member Borislav Tsekov said on 9 March that the new group does not intend to support the no-confidence vote moved by the opposition Socialist Party (BSP), reported. Fellow New Time member Ralitsa Agayn likewise vowed to continue to support the government, saying that "we all actively and zealously participated in the drafting and the realization of the government's program, and I do not see any reason why we should deny our responsibility [for it]." BSP Chairman Sergey Stanishev said he believes the New Time group was formed because the summer 2005 parliamentary elections are approaching and the defectors want to distance themselves from the government. UB

The Verkhovna Rada voted 262 to seven on 5 March to adopt in its first reading a bill postulating a fully proportional party-list system for parliamentary elections. The document -- referred to in the Ukrainian media as the Rudkovskyy-Klyuchkovskyy bill after the names of its main authors, Mykola Rudkovskyy from the Socialist Party and Yuriy Klyuchkovskyy from Our Ukraine -- calls for the election of 450 lawmakers in 225 constituencies from the lists of those parties and blocs that win at least 3 percent of the national vote, instead of the existing 4 percent voting threshold. The adoption of a purely proportional system is a sine qua non for the Communist Party and the Socialist Party to support the constitutional reform that is being promoted by the presidential administration.

It is noteworthy that essentially the same bill was put to a vote in the Verkhovna Rada in February 2003, when it was supported by 217 deputies (nine votes shy of the required majority for approval) from Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Social Democratic Party-united, that is, from the parties that easily cleared the 4 percent voting threshold in the March 2002 parliamentary ballot in the nationwide constituency, in which 225 parliamentary mandates were contested under a proportional party-list system. This time Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not take part in the vote. Even one of the authors of the bill, Our Ukraine lawmaker Yuriy Klyuchkovskyy, did not support it.

Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko explained that his bloc -- which won more than 100 parliamentary seats in 2002 primarily owing to a proportional election system applied to the half of the contested mandates -- did not participate in the vote because it cannot accept the lowering of a threshold for parties and blocs to make it into the Verkhovna Rada. "The issue of the threshold is of principal importance," Yushchenko said. According to him, the vote on the proportional election law was a "ticket to a coup" that will eventually lead -- through the subsequent adoption of a constitutional reform bill -- to the installation of an "emperor" in the post of prime minister. Yushchenko also argued that lowering the voting threshold will fragment the legislature even further than it is now, thus making it very problematic to form a viable pro-government coalition consisting of six to eight factions.

Yuliya Tymoshenko said her bloc refused to support the proportional election bill for reasons of principle. "The law on the proportional election [system] that was adopted today [5 March] is a banal bribe that was offered to opposition forces to ensure their support for the anticonstitutional mutiny," she charged. "I am stating that we have never accepted bribes and will never vote for laws that are democratic by name but in essence do not leave a stone standing in the people's power. The law on the proportional election [system] gives power to the clans.... Pretending to be witty and worrying about election innovations while the independent press is being destroyed in this country is the same as worrying about the temperature of tea in a train that is going off the rails."

Could Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc prevent the final adoption of the proportional election bill and thus block the constitutional reform, which they see as a ploy to maintain Ukraine's current political establishment in power irrespective of who wins the 2004 presidential election? It seems that the chances of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to persuade the Socialists, let alone the Communists, into voting against the proportional election bill in its current form have been lost once and for all. But there is still a glimmer of hope that the support for the bill will be dropped by some deputies from the pro-government parliamentary coalition who were elected in 2002 in single-mandate constituencies under a first-past-the-post system. Reportedly, far from all of them are happy with the all-proportional election system, fearing that they may fail to secure an "electable place" on some party list in 2006.

UNIAN reported on 5 March that nearly 60 deputies elected primarily in single-mandate constituencies have appealed to President Leonid Kuchma to initiate a referendum to learn the electorate's opinion about an all-proportional election system. They reportedly pledge their support for the constitutional reform promoted by the pro-presidential camp but simultaneously warn that an all-proportional election system will be a "step back under today's circumstances" and will lead to "monopolization of the country's political life." The appeal also warns that a fully proportional election law will deform the representation of regions in the Verkhovna Rada and reduce the accountability of lawmakers to the local electorate.

It is not clear if the signatories of the appeal are sufficiently determined to vote against the fully proportional election bill in its second reading. If they did so, then of course the passage of the constitutional-reform bill would be thrown into doubt. Therefore, it is not out of the question that now, when the preliminarily approved election bill is being reviewed by the parliamentary Constitutional Committee, the committee may introduce some "regional modifications" to the fully proportional electoral procedure in order to address the fears of deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies and thus stifle their potential rebellion. But that, in its turn, could raise objections on the part of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, whose readiness for compromise on the election bill seems to have been exhausted by their consent to the lowering of the election threshold to 3 percent. These two faint possibilities of parliamentary defiance seem to be the only chances of Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc for blocking the constitutional reform they see as a threat to democracy in Ukraine. True, there still is a chance that the Constitutional Court may agree with their appeal and rule that last year's vote on the constitutional reform bill was illegal, thus effectively killing the entire reform plan in 2004. But this last option is much more unlikely than the preceding two.

Mohammad Mohaqeq denied that he resigned his post as planning minister on 6 March, as reported by Afghanistan Television the following day (see RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2004), RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 9 March. Mohaqeq, who is also a candidate for the Afghan presidency, said he left a cabinet session to protest the division of responsibilities within the government and Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai "decided on his own to sack" him. "I did not want to resign," Mohaqeq added. Mohaqeq said he views himself as the legally appointed planning minister and a member of the cabinet. He claimed that Karzai "does not have the authority" to dismiss him. Mohaqeq said he argued with Karzai over the responsibilities of his ministry and over the actions of Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who Mohaqeq said has been undermining the work of the Planning Ministry. "I considered it my right to argue over this," he told Radio Afghanistan on 9 March. "I left the cabinet in protest." Mohaqeq told RFE/RL that he returned to his ministry after leaving the cabinet session. AT

Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, said on 9 March that Planning Minister Mohaqeq "expressed his desire to be out [of] the cabinet," Radio Afghanistan reported. According to Ludin, Mohaqeq said he did not "see any place for himself in the cabinet," which the Afghan Transitional Administration " oral resignation and accepted it." Ludin added that Mohaqeq "raised inappropriate questions and addressed them" to Karzai, "The New York Times" reported on 10 March. Mohaqeq told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on 9 March that while he considers himself a member of the cabinet, he will stay at home and will not create a problem from the situation. "There were a lot of other problems in the cabinet," Mohaqeq said, adding that he kept quiet out of "national interest," according to "The New York Times." Mohaqeq attributed the differences to some circles wishing to destroy the "jihadis" -- a reference to those who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-89. "My dismissal is an illegal dismissal, and Mr. Karzai has done it by force," Mohaqeq concluded. AT

Embattled Planning Minister Mohaqeq said on 9 March that a "psychological war" has been launched to pressure him as a presidential candidate, Radio Afghanistan reported. Mohaqeq, who entered the presidential contest as an independent candidate despite the fact that he is the leader of a faction of the Hizb-e Wahdat, had also voiced early concerns about alleged irregularities related to the upcoming vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February and 3 March 2004). He has said since his purported resignation that his colleagues from the anti-Soviet military campaign have been removed from office as "punishment" for his "stance against the monopoly" of power. Mohaqeq is a key figure in a faction within the most important political party representing Afghan Shi'ites. AT

Afghan Ambassador to London Ahmad Wali Mas'ud said on 8 March that he intends to announce the launch of the Nahzat-e Melli-ye Afghanistan (National Movement of Afghanistan) political party, which he vowed will include figures such as Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Education Minister Yunos Qanuni and will be aimed at putting forward a "strong presidential candidate" for the elections scheduled for June, the Dubai-based daily "Gulf News" reported on 10 March. Mas'ud, who is a younger brother of slain Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, unofficially founded his political party in May 2002; but he has so far delayed its official launch (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 October 2003). "History in Afghanistan has shown that a central government, which [sic] is too strong, leads to a dictatorship, and dictatorships lead to chaos," Mas'ud reportedly told "Gulf News." With Mohaqeq assuming a confrontational posture and the potential candidacy of Mas'ud, Qanuni, or Abdullah -- all ethnic Tajiks -- Karzai might be prompted to concentrate efforts on gaining the support of ethnic Pashtuns in his own presidential bid, potentially splitting the election along ethnic lines. AT

Iran and North Korea will build an underground facility for the manufacture of uranium-enrichment centrifuges near the city of Kusong, Japan's "Sankei Shimbun" newspaper reported on 10 March, citing an anonymous "military source." A high-ranking Iranian military official reportedly negotiated the project during a late-January visit to Pyongyang. After the equipment is manufactured at Kusong, which is northwest of Yongbyon, the equipment will be shipped to Iran via a third country, according to the Japanese daily. BS

Iranian Red Crescent Society head Ahmad Ali Nurbala said in the 9 March issues of the "Iran" and "Hambastegi" newspapers that most of the foreign funds sent to Iran after the December earthquake in Bam never reached the victims, Reuters reported. Nurbala said the Red Crescent received only $1.9 million in aid, but documents show that more than $11.8 million in aid came from overseas organizations. Nurbala called on the Economic Affairs and Finance Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to account for the foreign aid. Mohammad Ali Karimi, the governor-general of Kerman Province, where the quake was centered, said on 8 March that international media exaggerated the amount of foreign aid, state radio reported. "The people of the region think that foreign countries have fulfilled their promises, but unfortunately no cash aid was received from foreign countries; and all their offers of assistance did not go beyond words." BS

The Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation on constitutional and religious grounds, rejected the state budget for the forthcoming year on 9 March, state radio reported. The new Iranian year begins on 20 March, and the parliament passed the budget on 29 February. In that day's open session, the legislature approved a 1.15 trillion-rial (about $137 billion) budget, IRNA reported. The budget specified the extent of foreign borrowing, foreign-trade regulations, the campaign against smuggling, and increases in prices of government services. The cabinet is authorized to borrow 19.205 trillion rials from foreign sources or by selling bonds. The budget also called for specific targeting of state subsidies, an expanded social-services network, and extended medical insurance. In explaining rejection of the budget, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in a letter to parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, "In the review of the country's budget bill, eight points were found to be contrary to the constitution and one point contrary to Shari'a [Islamic law]," state radio reported. "Not foreseeing the source of the revenue, the unclear amount of expenses, and the nonbudgetary nature of some sections are among the Guardian Council's objections to next year's budget bill." BS

The Assembly of Experts concluded its semiannual meeting and issued its final statement on 8 March, IRNA reported the next day. The assembly is responsible for supervising the supreme leader's performance, and in the final statement it praised his advice to the Iranian people to vote in February's parliamentary elections. The statement said that the conduct of the elections "in a free, fair, lawful, and clean environment" foiled alien plots in favor of certain candidates or to have the elections postponed. Much of the statement focused on foreign affairs, however, and this is something that constitutionally is not within the assembly's purview. The statement said the forces occupying Iraq are responsible for "all disastrous events in the country"; that the international coalition should answer for the Ashura bombings; and that the occupation forces must leave Iraq in order to establish security there. The assembly's statement also said the gravest matter confronting the Islamic world is Palestine, and it condemned France for banning women's hijab, or headscarves. BS

A bomb detonated on 10 March near the Ba'qubah offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), international media reported. Reports of casualties varied, with Reuters reporting that one person was injured when the bomb exploded just after 6 a.m. local time, and Al-Arabiyah television placing that number at four. SCIRI is one of the leading Iraqi political parties. It is headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who also holds a seat on the Iraqi Governing Council. Al-Hakim is one of the Shi'ite council members who expressed last-minute reservations to the Transitional Administration Law ratified on 8 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). KR

Unknown assailants on 9 March killed two U.S. civilian contractors and their translator when their vehicle stopped at a bogus checkpoint near Al-Hillah, AP reported on 10 March. Polish military spokesman Colonel Robert Strzelecki said men disguised in Iraqi police uniforms shot and killed the three individuals at the makeshift checkpoint. Polish troops have arrested five Iraqis in connection with the murders, he added. KR

U.S. forces have reportedly arrested a leader of the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 10 March. An unidentified official from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) told the satellite news channel that Ayyub al-Afghani was arrested in Kirkuk, but provided no details regarding the circumstances of the arrest. KR

Kuwait on 9 March asked the UN Compensation Commission to pay some $720,000 in compensation to each family of the more than 600 Kuwaitis missing from the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and subsequent 1991 Gulf War, Reuters reported the same day. The remains of a number of missing Kuwaitis have been discovered in mass graves in Iraq over the past year. Kuwait also asked the UN for $10 million to cover the costs of exhuming and identifying the remains of its nationals through DNA testing. KR

Colin Powell said on 9 March that he remains confident that Iraqis will be able to confront the challenges ahead despite their differences, RFE/RL reported. The signing of Iraq's Transitional Administration Law "was such a historic step that I'm confident we'll be able to deal with these other challenges as they come along, or, we should put it another way -- the Iraqis will be able to deal with these other challenges as they come along, because this is now an Iraqi process," Powell said. "What we have launched now is an Iraqi process that will be driven by the Iraqis as they move forward, and they will have to reconcile the differences that might still exist within Iraq, and we will provide our assistance and guidance," he said. "But it is for them to determine how they will be governed, what kind of constitution they will have, and what kind of political system they will have within the guidelines of this administrative law and the constitution that will follow." KR

Iraq has exported some $6.15 billion in crude oil since the fall of the Hussein regime nearly one year ago, Reuters reported on 9 March, citing the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The proceeds from the sale of oil have been deposited in the U.S.-run Development Fund for Iraq (DFI). Reuters cited oil-market sources as saying that Iraqi crude exports continue to rise and are expected to exceed 2 million barrels per day this month, approaching the country's prewar level of 2.8 million bpd. CPA official Robert McKee told the "International Herald Tribune" of 2 March that oil exports this year could amount to $14 billion in revenue -- some $9 billion more than last year. KR