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Newsline - March 12, 2004


PUTIN URGES ELECTORATE TO VOTE...
In a nationally televised message on 11 March, President Vladimir Putin appealed to voters to take part in the 14 March presidential ballot, noting that "the vote of every one of us has enormous significance." According to ORT, Putin said that Russians are "growing accustomed to democratic procedures," but "this should not distract from the significance of [elections]." "Participation in elections is a unique right to influence the course of events in your home country," Putin said. "Just imagine what would happen if the supreme authority of the state failed to be elected...." JAC

...AS LOCAL OFFICIALS COME UP WITH INDUCEMENTS
Local officials continue to come up with ways to encourage voters to come to the polls, Russian media reported. In Yakutsk, mayoral administration workers are promising each voter a discount of 500 rubles ($18) on their housing or utilities payments, "Vremya novostei" reported on 12 March. In Sakhalin, young people who vote will receive free tickets to popular local clubs. In Nizhnevartovsk, 100 city businesses will hold a raffle of around 500 prizes for those who come to the polls, the daily reported. In Ulyanovsk, oblast and city officials decided to allow passengers to use public transport free of charge from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., VolgaInform reported on 10 March. Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov told reporters in Moscow that "all governors have an order to provide a 70 percent turnout," RosBalt reported. "I would not be surprised if the turnout is 142 percent." He also claimed that some ambulances will not pick up the sick if they do not supply evidence that they voted or have an absentee ballot. JAC

COMMUNISTS CHARGE TV COVERAGE OF CAMPAIGN WAS SLANTED TO PUTIN'S ADVANTAGE
Speaking at a press conference on 11 March, Communist Party presidential candidate and State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov unveiled the results of a media-monitoring project undertaken by the party, Russian media reported. The party's monitors reviewed all federal and leading regional television information/analytical programs from 12 February to 10 March. According to the findings, President Putin was shown 1,584 times, compared with 275 times for former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-leader Irina Khakamada, 264 times for Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev, 242 times for Kharitonov, and 182 times for Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) candidate Oleg Malyshkin. In RosBalt's and gazeta.ru's account of the news conference, Kharitonov did not mention the sixth candidate, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov. The OSCE did a similar survey of television reporting, but it also evaluated the reports in terms of positive and negative coverage (see "RFE/RL Russia Votes" http:www.rferl.org/specials/russianelection). Only on NTV and TV-Tsentr did Putin receive any coverage that could be characterized as negative in tone, according to the OSCE report. JAC

KHAKAMADA BLOCKED FROM MEETING WITH VOTERS
Presidential candidate Khakamada was denied permission to hold a meeting in Nizhnii Novgorod on 11 March at a local university at the last minute, her press secretary, Konstantin Lazarev, told reporters, according to Interfax. According to Lazarev, Khakamada had permission for the rally, but it was withdrawn. Students instead gathered outside the building where the meeting was scheduled to take place. Earlier in the month, fellow candidate Glazev had to conduct a press conference outdoors in Nizhnii Novgorod because the building where the event was scheduled suffered a power cut (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March, 2004). JAC

ALMOST CLEAN SWEEP FOR INCUMBENT PREDICTED IN REGIONAL RACES...
Seven of the 10 regions holding gubernatorial or republican-presidential elections on 14 March will almost certainly re-elect their incumbent governors, "Vremya novostei" reported on 12 March. According to the daily, the chance of any challengers are "minimal" in Altai and Krasnodar krais; Murmansk, Chita, and Kaluga oblasts; the Republic of Udmurtia; and the Koryak Autonomous Okrug. In Chita Oblast, only three candidates, including incumbent Governor Ravil Geniatulin, are running. Koryak, the region with the smallest population of just 20,000 people, has the largest number of candidates, 10, "Argumenty i fakty," No. 10, reported. JAC

...AS SECOND ROUNDS LIKELY IN ONLY A FEW LOCATIONS
The 14 March gubernatorial elections in Arkhangelsk, Ryazan, and Voronezh oblasts are likely to be more interesting, "Vremya novostei" reported on 12 March. In Arkhangelsk, the withdrawal of the governor's chief rival has not ensured incumbent Anatolii Yefremov's victory, according to "Vremya novostei." Candidate Nikolai Kiselev, who was ranked third in the polls, is expected to be able to capitalize on the negative feelings toward Yefremov, and pollsters are predicting a second round. In Ryazan, incumbent Communist Governor Vyacheslav Lyubimov has two strong rivals, former Airborne Troops commander and State Duma deputy (Motherland) Vladimir Shpak and State Duma deputy Igor Morozov, the Unified Russia party's candidate. In Voronezh, local legislator Galina Kudryavtseva has been making a strong showing in polls, and analysts expect a second round to be necessary. JAC

PROSECUTORS SAYS SWISS HAVE FROZEN $5 BILLION IN YUKOS OWNERS' ASSETS...
Prosecutor-General's Office spokeswoman Natalya Vishnyakova announced on 11 March that Swiss authorities have reacted to a Russian request and blocked the private bank accounts of 20 major Yukos shareholders, including those of jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii and Menatep Chairman Platon Lebedev, Russian media reported. She said the total amount frozen is about $5 billion. "I would like to stress that we are talking about the personal assets of people involved in theft and, I'm not afraid to say it, primitive stealing of state funds," Vishnyakova said on RTR. She said that, in addition to the accounts of Khodorkovskii and Lebedev, those of Yukos shareholders Leonid Nevzlin, Vladimir Dubov, Mikhail Brudno, and Aleksandr Temerko -- all of whom are the subjects of international arrest warrants -- have been frozen. Vishnyakova said Switzerland is prepared to launch a criminal investigation of individuals who, in the opinion of the Prosecutor-General's Office, created "an organized crime group for money laundering." VY

...AS ONE SHAREHOLDER SAYS PROSECUTORS HAVE GREATLY EXAGGERATED HIS SWISS ASSETS...
Yukos shareholder Nevzlin, who is living in Israel, told cursorinfo.co.il on 11 March that Russian prosecutors have greatly exaggerated the assets he and other Yukos shareholders held in Swiss banks. He said the real sum is not more than $5 million, adding that "nobody keeps such huge amounts in cash on personal accounts." He also said that his Swiss bank warned him six months ago about the possibility of such a development, and so Nevzlin left just $100,000 in his accounts for his family's current expenses. Anton Drel, a lawyer for jailed former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii, told journalists in Moscow on 11 March that Khodorkovskii closed his Swiss accounts last year. He added that even when Khodorkovskii had such accounts, he never kept more than a few hundred thousand dollars in them and reports about the accounts were regularly sent to tax authorities and the Central Bank. VY

...AND ANOTHER SHRUGS OFF ARREST WARRANT
Moscow's Basmannyi Raion Court on 11 March approved an arrest warrant for Yukos co-founder Mikhail Brodno, Russian media reported. Like Khodorkovskii, Lebedev, and other Yukos shareholders, Brodno is accused of massive fraud. Brodno owns 7 percent of Yukos and, like Nevzlin and Dubov, is living in Israel. He told cursorinfo.co.il on 11 March that a warrant for his arrest was issued in November when his Russian property and assets were seized. "Did they lose the old warrant and issue a new one?" Dubov asked sarcastically. Some observers said that the dramatic reports of stepped-up activity against the Yukos shareholders seems like a promotional effort for the Kremlin linked to the 14 March presidential election. VY

OIL GIANT RETURNS TO BAGHDAD
LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov and Iraqi Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum signed a memorandum in Baghdad on 11 March on Russian assistance in restoring Iraq's petrochemical infrastructure and in training personnel to work in the oil industry, Western and Russian media reported. Alekperov said the document is the first step toward restoring LUKoil's position in Iraq. Under the regime of deposed President Saddam Hussein, LUKoil was a leading player among the more than 200 Russian companies active in Iraq. Alekperov first of all hopes to regain a $5 billion contract to develop the West Qurna-2 oil deposit, a contract that was renounced shortly before the beginning of the U.S.-led military campaign to oust Hussein (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002), the BBC reported on 11 March. If Alekperov, with U.S. consent, manages to reach an agreement with the Iraqi administration, LUKoil could gain access to fields with estimated reserves of at least 800 million tons of oil, the BBC noted. At present, LUKoil's total annual production is not more than 80 million tons. VY

ANALYSTS SAY GOVERNMENT, PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION UNIFIED
Effective Policy Foundation head and Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovskii told RIA-Novosti on 10 March that President Putin has formed a government that contains no opponents to his policies. The cabinet and the presidential administration are now unified into a homogeneous government, Pavlovskii said. He added that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will "unwaveringly carry out Putin's foreign-policy course." Former National Strategy Council Director and Kremlin insider Stanislav Belkovskii seconded Pavlovskii's statements, newsinfo.com reported on 11 March. He said that the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was "a cabinet of compromise between the old and new presidents" and argued that "the new government is completely Putin's own team." He said that Yeltsin-era holdovers such as former Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, former Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, and former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov were removed from the cabinet, while ministers loyal to Putin -- such as Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref -- were retained. Finally, he noted that Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov is also a Putin loyalist. VY

CATHOLIC CHURCH DELAYS OPENING OF NUNNERY IN VOLGA REGION
The opening of a Roman Catholic nunnery in Nizhnii Novogorod has been postponed, Radio Rossii reported on 11 March. According to the station, when news that the convent, which existed before the Bolshevik revolution, would be restored and reopened broke, a public outcry was raised both locally and in Moscow. The Nizhnii Novgorod diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement calling it an "unfriendly move." Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia Aleksii II raised the issue during his meeting with papal envoy Cardinal Walter Kasper last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004). Kasper was the most senior Vatican official to visit Russia in four years, media reported at the time. According to VolgaInform on 10 March, Patriarch Aleksii will visit Nizhnii Novgorod in June to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of St. Seraphim of Sarov. JAC

PRESIDENTIAL AIDE DENIES OFFICIAL INVOLVEMENT IN AID WORKER'S ABDUCTION
Sergei Yastrzhembskii dismissed as groundless on 11 March allegations made the previous day by Jean-Herve Bredol, head of the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF), that senior Russian and Daghestani government officials were involved in the August 2002 abduction of MSF staffer Arjan Erkel, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2004). "We are doing everything possible to release Erkel," Yastrzhembskii said. In Makhachkala, an unnamed spokesman for the republican Prosecutor-General's Office similarly said there is no evidence to substantiate Bredol's claim, Interfax reported. LF

CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDERS CONVENE COUNCIL OF WAR IN GROZNY SUBURB
Doku Umarov, commander of the southwest front, convened a council of senior and middle-ranking field commanders on 7 March in the village of Chernoreche on the outskirts of Grozny, chechenpress.com reported on 11 March, quoting the website www.ichkeria.dk. LF

FORMER CHECHEN DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS HE SURRENDERED VOLUNTARILY
Speaking at a press conference in Grozny on 11 March, Magomed Khambiev, who served as defense minister under Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, denied that he surrendered on 8 March because his relatives had been detained by Chechen security officials, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9, 10, and 11 March 2004). Khambiev said both he and Maskhadov were against the incursion into Daghestan in the summer of 1999 by Chechen formations commanded by field commander Shamil Basaev, and that he does not understand why Maskhadov failed to prevent Basaev from launching that raid. Khambiev also said he thinks Maskhadov should follow his example and surrender to the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities. He said he is ready to pledge his loyalty to pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov and to help "achieve peace and stability" in Chechnya. LF

PIE IN THE SKY?
Russian aerospace designer Aleksandr Lavrenov has patented a method of placing commercial advertising in space, Interfax and newsru.com reported on 10 March. His scheme involves creating a gigantic tableau of sunlight reflections that would be held in space by a set of satellites arranged in strictly coordinated orbits. Such ads, Lavrenov says, could be seen from vast regions of the earth's surface. VY

OPPOSITIONIST CHALLENGES ARMENIAN PRESIDENT TO TV DEBATE
Addressing supporters in Yerevan on 11 March, National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian again called on President Robert Kocharian to agree to a televised debate on the problems Armenia faces, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. He recalled that he has been demanding such a debate for the past two years. Geghamian further rejected Kocharian's argument, voiced during a meeting with university students on 10 March, that Armenia's strong economic growth renders it immune to political crises. In October 2002, Kocharian had argued the opposite, affirming that "without stability it is futile to speak of stable economic development," according to "Respublika Armeniya" on 29 October 2002. LF

ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES PRELIMINARY DISASTER AID
The Armenian government allocated 507 million drams ($900,000) on 11 March to help residents of rural areas hit by seasonal flooding last week, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Nearly one-third of that sum will be used to repair schools and provide new housing for 50 families whose homes were destroyed. More than 60 villages were affected by the floods, which killed livestock and destroyed spring crops. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT ADDRESSES RULING PARTY
Ilham Aliyev addressed a meeting of the board of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), of which he is a first deputy chairman, on 11 March, ITAR-TASS and zerkalo.az reported on 11 and 12 March, respectively. Aliyev listed as his primary tasks solving social problems, economic development, and strengthening Azerbaijan's position within the international community. He called on the party's leadership to begin preparing for the municipal elections due this fall and for parliamentary elections to be held in late 2005. Parliament speaker Murtuz Alesqerov, who is a deputy chairman of YAP, said the party would like to see Aliyev in the currently vacant post of party chairman. LF

GEORGIAN POLICE ARREST MAVERICK DEFROCKED PRIEST...
Interior Ministry forces succeeded early on 12 March in arresting former priest Basil Mkalavishvili and seven of his supporters in Tbilisi, Georgian media reported. An attempt to take Mkalavishvili into custody on 11 March failed because members of the congregation surrounded the church in a Tbilisi district where he took refuge. Several parishioners were injured in clashes with the police on 12 March. A warrant for Mkalavishvili's arrest was issued in June 2003 on charges of organized violence over a period of several years against Jehovah's Witnesses (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 18 July 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2003). LF

...TRIGGERING WIDESPREAD PROTESTS
Giorgi Andriadze, parliamentary secretary to Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, condemned on 12 March as "unacceptable" the "violent methods" to which police resorted when arresting Mkalavishvili, Caucasus Press reported. The opposition Union of Georgian Nationalists expressed support for Mkalavishvili and his objective of ridding Georgia of non-Orthodox sects. A group of NGOs and opposition parties held President Mikheil Saakashvili responsible for Mkalavishvili's arrest and called on him to resign and to apologize for insulting Georgia's state religion. The Industrialists-New Rightists election alliance also condemned the recourse to violence during Makalavishvili's arrest and suggested that the new Georgian leadership is out to undermine the Georgian church. LF

FRENCH AMBASSADOR TO BE NAMED GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER
President Saakashvili told journalists on 11 March that he intends to name Salome Zurabishvili-Kashia as foreign minister as she is ideally suited to promote Georgia's integration into European structures, Caucasus Press reported. Zurabishvili-Kashia, who was born in Paris in 1951 into a family that fled Georgia following the Soviet takeover in 1921, made her career in the French diplomatic service and was named French ambassador to Tbilisi last year. Saakashvili said that during his recent visit to Paris he discussed Zurabishvili-Kashia's possible appointment with French President Jacques Chirac, and that he will grant her Georgian citizenship. He praised current Foreign Minister Tedo Djaparidze, who he said will be appointed to another post. LF

REGIONAL SECURITY OFFICIALS GATHER IN KAZAKHSTAN
Top officials from the security services of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan met on 11 March in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, to set up a permanent working group to foster closer cooperation and coordination, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The meeting was attended by Kazakhstan's National Security Committee Chairman Nartay Dutbaev, Uzbekistan's National Security Service head Rustam Inoyatov, Tajikistan's Deputy Security Minister Mukhtor Sharipov, and Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service Deputy Director Beyshenbay Junusov. The participants told reporters that the primary impetus for increased security coordination in the region is the need to combat drug trafficking and religious-extremist movements. DK

ALLY TELLS KAZAKH PRESIDENT TO RESIGN
Zamanbek Nurkadilov, the head of Kazakhstan's Emergency Situations Agency and a longtime ally of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, told an 11 March news conference in Almaty that he has written to the president advising him to resign, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nurkadilov's letter praises Nazarbaev as having "done much for the young state," but argues that a combination of corruption, abuse of power, and unpopularity has made it time for the president to step down. Kazakhstan, according to Nurkadilov, has "stalled" in its development and could be "heading toward feudalism." Nurkadilov does not plan to resign. DK

KAZAKH PRIME MINISTER CRITICIZES APPROACH TO ARMY REFORM
At a government session in Astana on 11 March, Daniyal Akhmetov criticized the General Staff's approach to switching to a contract system of service in the armed forces and demanded that the top brass provide detailed theoretical and economic explanations for it, Russian media reported. Echoing comments by President Nazarbaev reported in "Krasnaya zvezda" on 19 February, Akhmetov argued that military service should be perceived as "prestigious, attractive, respected, and well-paid." The Kazakh Army currently numbers 74,000 troops, of whom 80-85 percent are conscripts. In May 2002, Altynbaev said 50 percent of service personnel will be professionals by 2010. LF

KAZAKHSTAN ANNOUNCES RESULTS OF MAJOR NARCOTICS OPERATION
Kazakhstan's National Security Committee announced on 11 March that it recently completed a months-long sting operation to smash a major drug ring, the Khabar news agency reported. The operation, which began in August, targeted a multinational group allegedly led by a Kazakh citizen and specializing in smuggling heroin out of Afghanistan. In the course of Operation Nayza (Spear), law enforcement officials confiscated more than 200 kilograms of narcotics and arrested 14 suspected members of the international drug group, Kazinform reported. The operation was concluded in mid-February. DK

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT RATIFIES MIGRANT PROTOCOL
The lower house of the Kyrgyz parliament on 11 March ratified a protocol intended to help Kyrgyz labor migrants in Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. Signed on 22 September, the protocol modifies a 1996 agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Russia, making it easier for Kyrgyz citizens to register and work in Russia and easier for Russian employers to hire them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 September 2003). According to akipress.org, approximately 300,000 Kyrgyz citizens currently reside in Russia. Most of them are engaged in some form of commerce. Russia's State Duma must still ratify the protocol before it takes effect. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aytmatov told parliamentarians that the Duma will take up the protocol in the near future. DK

KYRGYZ MINISTRIES DENIES REPORTS OF U.S. 'REGIME CHANGE' REMARKS
Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 11 March denying media reports that U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Lynn Pascoe told Kyrgyz opposition leaders at a Washington meeting that new leadership is needed in Kyrgyzstan, the official news agency Kabar reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2004). According to the Foreign Ministry's statement, the reports are untrue and "the representative of the U.S. State Department did not make any statement of the kind." DK

TWO 'FREEDOM' DECREES FROM TURKMEN LEADER
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov issued two decrees on 11 March, one allowing Turkmen citizens to leave the country freely and another guaranteeing them religious freedom, turkmenistan.ru reported. The first decree grants Turkmen citizens the right to leave the country unimpeded, provided they have a valid entry visa for the country to which they are traveling. Currently, Turkmen citizens require a stamp from the Foreign Ministry's consular section to travel abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 January 2004). The second decree guarantees the free registration of religious organizations. Human rights observers have singled out Turkmenistan for harsh criticism for limiting Turkmen citizens' ability to travel and for cracking down on religious groups in a country that is already considered one of the most repressive in the world. DK

UZBEK CIVIL SERVICE TO SHED 40,000 JOBS
Administrative streamlining will trim 40,000 jobs from Uzbekistan's civil service in 2004, an unidentified source in the cabinet told Interfax on 10 March. The cuts will allow saving of some 40 billion soms ($40 million), according to the source. The slimmer civil service will employ an administrative staff that comprises less than 1.6 percent of the total workforce, a much lower figure than in some other CIS states. DK

BELARUSIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT RECOMMENDS ABOLITION OF DEATH PENALTY
The Constitutional Court on 11 March recommended removing capital punishment from Belarus's Criminal Code or imposing a moratorium on executions, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. According to the court, such measures may be enacted by the head of state or the National Assembly. The court examined the constitutionality of the death penalty following a petition from the Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house. "Belarus cannot but take into account the international community's trends regarding the death penalty," Constitutional Court Chairman Ryhor Vasilevich said, noting that 45 member states of the Council of Europe and 100 other countries ban capital punishment. Vasilevich recalled that some 80 percent of voters opposed abolition of the death penalty in a 1996 referendum, but he added that the Belarusian Criminal Code at the time did not stipulate such alternative punishments as 25 years' imprisonment or life imprisonment, which were introduced in 1997. Executions in Belarus are carried out by shooting. JM

COMMUNIST LEADER WANTS MADELEINE ALBRIGHT BARRED FROM ENTERING UKRAINE
Petro Symonenko told journalists on 11 March that Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state from 1997-2001, should be declared persona non grata in Ukraine, Interfax reported. "She is a threat to Ukraine," Symonenko said, referring to her article "How To Help Ukraine Vote," published in "The New York Times" on 8 March. "If the [2004 presidential] elections take place in the way we do not want them to, we will close all foreign accounts of natural and legal persons," Symonenko misquoted Albright as writing. "This is unprecedented impudence, and simply boorish behavior with regard to Ukraine." In fact, Albright wrote: "If, however, the elections are fraudulent, Ukraine's leaders should know that their entry into Western institutions will slow and that their own bank accounts and visa privileges will be jeopardized. The same should hold true if Mr. [President Leonid] Kuchma's faction manipulates the Constitution to its own advantage." JM

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT CONCERNED OVER MEDIA FREEDOM IN UKRAINE
The European Parliament adopted a resolution on 11 March expressing concern about Ukraine's recent clampdown on media and specifically the recent court decision to shut down the opposition newspaper "Silski visti," the closure of the FM station "Kontynent," and a campaign against the independent Fifth Channel Television, UNIAN reported. The resolution also calls on Ukraine to ensure transparent and democratic presidential elections in October. The document has no binding impact on the policies of individual EU members. JM

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT REPORT LISTS ESTONIA'S SHORTCOMINGS
The report on Estonia's preparedness for EU membership approved by the European Parliament on 11 March commends the country's successful reforms, but also highlighted a number of problems that must be resolved, BNS reported the same day. The compiler of the report, parliamentarian Elmar Brok (Christian Democrat, Germany), told the European Parliament that Estonia must take further measures to resolve the issue of its 165,000 stateless people and to improve relations with Russia so a bilateral border-delimitation agreement can be signed and ratified. The report also noted deficiencies in the agricultural sector, including the lack of an agency to manage EU payments. Other shortcomings named were in the areas of mutual recognition of professional qualifications, labor law, and gender equality. SG

NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL PLEDGES SECURITY TO LATVIA
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer arrived in Riga on 11 March at the start of a two-day tour of the Baltic states, BNS reported. Addressing parliament, he said Latvia's NATO membership will ensure that the country will never be alone if its security is threatened, but also comes with obligations to work with its fellow NATO states in tackling the security challenges of the 21st century. Scheffer congratulated new Prime Minister Indulis Emsis and urged Latvia to continue reforming its armed forces, with particular focus on increased mobility. In talks with Defense Minister Atis Slakteris, he stressed that Baltic airspace will become NATO airspace when the three states join NATO in April. Scheffer also assured Foreign Minister Rihards Piks that he will bring up the topic of the lack of border agreements with Latvia and Estonia in his upcoming talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but will not discuss Russia's issues with Latvia's education reforms, as it is an internal affair of Latvia. SG

LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT MARKS INDEPENDENCE UNDER IMPEACHMENT CLOUD
The ongoing presidential impeachment was not forgotten during the 11 March parliamentary session marking the 14th anniversary of the restoration of Lithuania's independence, "Lietuvos zinios" reported the next day. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, who has urged embattled President Rolandas Paksas to resign, quoted Kazys Grinius, who briefly served as Lithuanian president in 1926: "As long as we honor the constitution, as long as we adhere to it, there will be harmony in our country. The president's special duty as stated in his oath is to protect the constitution." Lithuanian Independence Act signatory Kazimieras Motieka said the Paksas scandal has revealed Russia's efforts to restore its influence in Lithuania. "Today it is very important to understand that Russia chose Lithuania as the most suitable state to implement its goals not only because it invested a large sum of Russian money in various ways into the presidential campaign," Motieka said. "It is much more important to understand that with this money Russia links its plans to the unresolved problems in our society." Paksas attended the session, but did not speak. SG

POLISH OPPOSITION LAWMAKER WANTS PREMIER TO ACCOUNT FOR RYWINGATE
Law and Justice legislator Zbigniew Ziobro, a member of the parliamentary commission investigating the so-called Rywingate bribery scandal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2004), told journalists on 11 March that Prime Minister Leszek Miller should answer before the Tribunal of State for allegedly violating the law and legislative procedures during the work in 2002 on a media bill that led to Rywingate, Polish Television reported. In particular, Ziobro claims that Miller allowed the media bill to be drafted by the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council, an institution that is not legally empowered to carry out legislative activities. "It is an example of incredible ignorance," Miller commented on Ziobro's allegations, "I repeat -- incredible ignorance -- ignorance that shows that we are dealing with a deputy who is an ignoramus and who does not know elementary constitutional clauses." JM

POLISH RULING COALITION TO RUN TOGETHER IN EUROPEAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) is planning to field a joint list of candidates with its ruling coalition partner, the Labor Union, in the elections to the European Parliament in June, PAP reported on 11 March, quoting SLD deputy head Jozef Oleksy. Oleksy said the list will also be open to nonparty candidates. JM

EUROPARLIAMENT WORRIED BY REPORTS ABOUT CHILD PROSTITUTION IN CZECH REPUBLIC
In a report approved by the European Parliament on 11 March, European legislators voiced concern over reports of "alleged child prostitution" and other forms of human trafficking on the border between the Czech Republic and Germany, CTK reported. Swedish MEP Per-Arne Arvidsson insisted that the report use the word "alleged" because the European Parliament has no hard evidence of the practice, which was also acknowledged by the Europarliament's rapporteur for the Czech Republic, Juergen Schroeder. The report concludes that the Czech Republic is fully prepared for EU accession, although there are several areas in which the country must still adopt EU norms. MS

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT REJECTS AMENDMENT ON ROMANY SITUATION IN SLOVAKIA
The European Parliament on 11 March rejected an amendment proposed by Greens that called for the continued monitoring of Slovakia and deplored the situation and treatment of the Romany minority in that country, TASR and CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2004). The amendment was submitted in reaction to recent clashes and the deployment of military and police reinforcements in eastern Slovakia. Instead, the chamber approved wording calling on the Slovak government to improve living conditions for the Romany minority. MS

SLOVAK PARLIAMENT STRIPS OPPOSITION DEPUTIES OF IMMUNITY...
Slovak lawmakers lifted the political immunity on 11 March of legislators Milan Rehak (People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia [LS-HZDS]) and Igor Pinkava (Independent), TASR and CTK reported. They are suspected of having embezzled 34 million crowns ($1 million) when they worked for the National Property Fund (FNM) in the mid-1990s, during one of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's three tenures as prime minister. Investigators allege that Rehak and Pinkava sold apartments owned by the FNM to employees at below-market prices, including one flat to Pinkava himself. MS

...AND APPROVES DEPLOYMENT OF MORE SOLDIERS TO AFGHANISTAN
Parliament on 11 Match approved the dispatch of 17 additional Slovak soldiers to Afghanistan to take part in the international stabilization effort there, TASR reported. Sixteen of the slots are for specialists in de-mining, while the other soldier will join the international brigade stationed in Kabul. Forty Slovak soldiers are already deployed at the Bagram airport near the Afghan capital. MS

EUROPARLIAMENT CRITICIZES HUNGARIAN PREMIER'S PROPOSAL FOR JOINT CANDIDATE LIST
The European Parliament released a statement on 11 March saying that Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's proposal that all parliamentary parties run a joint list in June's EU elections would infringe on citizens' right to free choice, Hungarian media reported. The statement was released in conjunction with approval by the European legislature of the final country report before Hungary and nine other states' May accession date. The report concludes that Hungary is prepared for EU membership but reiterates criticism about a lack of preparedness of several institutions to deal with EU funds distribution and other issues. The opposition FIDESZ's observer in the European Parliament, Jozsef Szajer, commented that he hopes the warning forces Medgyessy to understand that he must abandon his joint-list proposal. Socialist Party lawmaker Magda Kovacs Kosa countered that the criticism leveled at Medgyessy's proposal is typical of the European People's Party (EPP) caucus, which she said is providing direct assistance to FIDESZ's EU election campaign. The EPP, representing conservative parties, is the Europarliament's largest parliamentary faction. FIDESZ joined the EEP in 2000, after leaving the Liberal International. MS

BUDAPEST TO FINANCE HUNGARIAN-LANGUAGE TELEVISION IN TRANSYLVANIA
Hungary's Information Technology Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office have set aside some 300 million forints ($1.45 million) to launch a new Hungarian-language television channel in Transylvania to be called Karpatia Television, "Magyar Hirlap" reported on 11 March. Funding should reach 500 million forints in total, the daily added. Programming will reportedly be produced and edited exclusively in Romania by ethnic Hungarians. (Programming for the existing Hungarian-language satellite channel, Duna Television, is produced mainly in Budapest.) Politicians in both Hungary and Romania have suggested that the new station will espouse the views of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania. Duna Television is generally regarded as sympathetic to the views of right-wing Hungarian political parties and groupings in both Hungary and Transylvania. "Magyar Hirlap" reported that IT Minister Kalman Kovacs is scheduled to announce the new project during his 15 March visit to the Romanian border city of Oradea. MSZ

GRENADE THROWN AT HOME OF KOSOVA'S PRESIDENT
An unknown person threw a grenade from a passing car into the front yard of the Prishtina home of Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova around 8:00 a.m. on 12 March, Reuters reported. A police spokesman said there was some damage to the building but no injuries. Rugova's Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) said in a statement, "This is an attack on Kosova's institutions. The perpetrators must be found as soon as possible." Rugova's home is close to the street in a densely populated residential neighborhood. As in much of Prishtina, the streets in the neighborhood are narrow and unevenly paved, making it difficult to plan and execute a quick getaway. It is unclear who might be behind the unprecedented attack on the pacifist president. After Rugova participated in formal talks with Serbian officials in Vienna in October, some hard-line Albanian nationalists made veiled threats against their co-nationals who "negotiate with the enemy" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2003). PM

MACEDONIA AND IRELAND AGREE ON NEW DATE FOR EU APPLICATION
A Macedonian delegation will present the country's application for EU membership to Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who holds the rotating EU Presidency, on 22 March, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 12 March. EU and Macedonian officials agreed that the application should be handed over before Macedonia's presidential election campaign starts on 30 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February and 11 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 February 2004). UB

SERBIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION SET FOR APRIL
Predrag Markovic, who is speaker of the Serbian parliament and acting president, announced on 11 March that the presidential election will be held on 4 April, well ahead of the legally mandated deadline, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The parliament recently repealed legislation requiring that at least 50 percent of all registered voters turn out for a presidential election to be valid, a requirement that caused the three previous attempts to fail. On 4 April, only a majority of voters casting their ballots is required to elect a president, which is a largely ceremonial office. The governing coalition has not announced its candidate. In Belgrade, Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) indicated that he will probably be his party's candidate in April. He won the most votes of any candidate in the previous presidential election in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 November and 12 December 2003). PM

SERBIAN JOURNALISTS' LEADER CITES THREATS TO MEDIA FREEDOMS
RFE/RL Belgrade correspondent Nebojsa Bugarinovic was elected in late February to serve as president of the Association of Independent Journalists in Serbia (NUNS), RFE/RL said in a statement in Washington on 11 March. Bugarinovic's predecessor was Milica Lucic-Cavic, also a Belgrade-based correspondent for RFE/RL. Bugarinovic joined RFE/RL in 1999, during the Kosova conflict. At that time, journalists who worked for foreign media -- particularly Western media -- were stigmatized by Serbian nationalists as traitors. Bugarinovic studied law and worked for several Serbian media outlets and as a public-relations manager before joining RFE/RL. He believes the struggle for an independent media in Serbia is not over. According to Bugarinovic, businessmen who amassed fortunes during the rule of former President Slobodan Milosevic that ended in 2000 are now seeking to exert control over the media by buying up media outlets (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 March 2004). PM

ONE BOSNIAN SERB SENTENCED AND ANOTHER ACQUITTED FOR WAR CRIMES
The Hague-based war crimes tribunal on 11 March sentenced Ranko Cesic, a Bosnian Serb policeman, to 18 years in prison for war crimes committed at the Luka concentration camp near Brcko in 1992, Hina reported. Reversing a prior plea of not guilty, he confessed on 8 October to all 12 counts of the indictment accusing him of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war. Cesic also agreed to cooperate with the tribunal in other cases. Meanwhile in Sarajevo, the Sarajevo Cantonal Court acquitted Jovo Torbica, a Bosnian Serb, for lack of evidence. Torbica was accused of torturing and executing civilians in the villages of Ahatovici and Dobrosevici near Sarajevo in 1992. PM

NATO FINDS ANOTHER BOSNIAN SERB ARMS CACHE
SFOR peacekeepers said in a statement on 12 March that they recently unearthed 220 crates of various types of illegal ammunition in the Kozara area of northwest Bosnia, dpa reported. Such caches dating from the 1992-95 conflict are found from time to time throughout Bosnia. Many more are believed to remain underground or hidden in buildings. In communist times, Bosnia was a center of former Yugoslavia's arms industry and arms depots, which were placed strategically in remote areas in anticipation of a guerrilla war against a foreign invader on the model of World War II. PM

CROATIAN PRESIDENT PRESSES FOR EU MEMBERSHIP
The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 12 March quoted Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader as saying on a recent visit to Berlin that his country hopes to join the EU in 2007 or 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 January 2004). In response to suggestions from some individual EU officials that all remaining former Yugoslav republics should wait to join the EU at the same time, Sanader argued that Croatia should be judged on its own merits -- as was Slovenia, which will join the EU in May (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003). He noted that Slovenia has served as a positive example for its southern neighbors, arguing that Croatia can do the same. The Croatian leader declined to answer a question about how his government views possible Turkish EU membership, saying that Croatia is a candidate and not a full EU member. Referring to his own plans for economic reform, Sanader said that one model he is studying is that of Slovakia, which recently introduced a 19 percent flat-rate tax. PM

EUROPARLIAMENT TAKES 'TOUGH LOVE' APPROACH WITH ROMANIA...
The European Parliament on 11 March approved the country report on Romania drafted by its Foreign Affairs Committee, international news agencies reported. The report urges Romania to do more to fight corruption, end political interference in the judicial system, ensure media freedom, and prevent police brutality, AP reported. It also expresses continued concern about international adoptions of Romanian children. The organization's rapporteur for Romania, Baroness Emma Nicholson, was quoted by AFP as saying: "The European Parliament is a friend of Romania. But real friends are honest with each other and are not afraid of speaking frankly about problems and giving advice. This serious 'tough love' policy is one that Romania should follow scrupulously." The adopted resolution states that Romania "faces serious difficulties fulfilling the requirements" of EU membership and that achieving EU integration by 2007 is "impossible" unless Romania speeds up economic and political reforms. The resolution also says that the Europarliament believes negotiations on joining the EU could be concluded with Bulgaria this year, and the country's accession efforts "should not necessarily be linked to that of Romania." MS

...AND ROMANIAN LEADERS TAKE IT IN STRIDE
President Ion Iliescu said on 11 March in reaction to the Europarliament's report that he welcomes it "with satisfaction," Mediafax reported. Iliescu said the resolution is "balanced, and takes into account Romanian realities and the latter-day evolution in the accession negotiations." He said the resolution should be taken as "encouragement" for Romania to continue and speed up reforms, adding that criticisms in the report are "justified and pertinent." Iliescu noted that the resolution reconfirms the year 2007 as the target date for Romania's accession. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said the resolution "refutes" the pessimist prognostications heard recently and noted that some critical formulations included in the draft were toned down. EU Ambassador to Romania Jonathan Scheele said the resolution's approval was "a cold shower that the [Romanian] government understood very well." MS

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES TOUGH ADOPTION BILL
The cabinet on 11 March approved a bill that would allow international adoptions of Romanian children only to direct relatives, and even then only if all attempts to place an orphan in a Romanian home have failed, Mediafax and AP reported. The bill is to be soon submitted to parliament. Romania was criticized in the Europarliament's resolution approved the same day for failing to implement its self-imposed moratorium on international adoptions. The moratorium was instated in response to allegations of child trafficking and corruption within the adoption system. MS

CNMT TO SUBMIT OWN DRAFT ON TRANSYLVANIAN AUTONOMY TO ROMANIAN PARLIAMENT
The chairman of the National Council of Transylvanian Hungarians (CNMT in Romanian, EMNT in Hungarian), Bishop Laszlo Toekes, said in Targu-Mures on 11 March that the CNMT will soon submit its own plan for granting autonomy to Transylvania's Hungarian minority, Mediafax reported. A plan drafted by the Hungarian Szekler National Council (SZNT in Hungarian, CNS in Romanian) outlining possible autonomy for lands inhabited by the Szeklers has already been submitted to parliament by several deputies representing the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), although the UDMR has distanced itself from the initiative (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). Toekes said that if parliament rejects the CNMT's draft it will appeal to European institutions. He alleged that the Romanian and the Hungarian governments have secretly agreed to reject autonomy plans, and charged that the UDMR can no longer fight for Magyar autonomy because "it has made a 180-degree turn" from the organization's program. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Civic Union (UCM) announced on 11 March that it is starting a drive to collect signatures supporting dual citizenship for Romania's ethnic Hungarians. MS

EUROPEAN COMMISSION OFFICIAL OUTLINES OBSTACLES TO MOLDOVA'S EU INTEGRATION
Ivan Borisavijevic, the European Commission's envoy to Moldova, told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 10 March that the main obstacles on the road of Moldova's integration with the EU are the Transdniester conflict, corruption, and poverty, as well as a lack of genuine reforms. Borisavijevic said the EU is pleased to take note of repeated Moldovan declarations of intent concerning the country's EU integration, but "the most important thing would be seeing concrete reforms" and the abolition of state controls that hinder the development of a free-market economy. Borisavijevic also said he believes it will take Moldova at least 10-15 years to catch up with those former communist countries that have approached EU living standards in the last decade. "The reason rests in a weak economy, an underdeveloped infrastructure, few investments, and much corruption," he said. MS

MOLDOVAN OPPOSITION PARTIES NEGOTIATE SETTING UP JOINT ELECTORAL BLOC
The Our Moldova alliance has been negotiating with several extraparliamentary parties over the formation of a joint electoral bloc ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections, Infotag reported on 11 March. Our Moldova co-Chairman Vyacheslav Untila said in an interview with Chisinau's Radio Nova that the bloc would include the Democratic Party, the Social Liberal Party, and the Centrist Union. Untila said the parties have already agreed that in the event the bloc is set up, it will be headed by Our Moldova co-Chairman and Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean. MS

BULGARIAN PARLIAMENT DISCUSSES NO-CONFIDENCE MOTION...
Parliament on 11 March discussed the vote of no confidence in the government expected on 12 March, BTA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 9 March 2004). Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi dismissed as groundless the Socialist Party's (BSP) rationale for initiating the vote on the basis that the government's policies are "socially irresponsible," saying the only purpose the vote can achieve is delaying the country's accession to the EU. BSP Chairman Sergey Stanishev argued that neither the EU nor NATO have any need for a society whose citizens constantly face the indifference and irresponsibility of the state. Stanishev said the country's citizens have lost confidence in the future. The vote of no confidence is unlikely to succeed, as the government can count on support from the ruling coalition of the National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) as well as by the NDSV defectors of the newly formed New Time parliamentary group, which together hold 128 of the 240 seats in parliament. UB

...AS OPPOSITION PARTIES TRADE ACCUSATIONS
Valentin Vasilev of the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), which has decided to boycott the 12 March vote, said his party cannot cooperate with the Socialists, BTA reported. Vasilev stressed that the SDS has a fundamentally different view of how to resolve the country's social problems. For Vasilev, it is necessary to strengthen the economy rather than "printing money" for social benefits. Stoycho Katsarov of the conservative opposition United Democratic Forces (ODS) accused the SDS of supporting the government. He added that as far as the ODS is concerned, the country's political system is morally bankrupt. Katsarov accused both the government and the SDS of political horse trading (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2004). UB

SPINNING PUTIN


On 14 March, voters across Russia will go to the polls to elect -- or, in all likelihood, re-elect -- their president. On the same day, in the United States, cable-television subscribers will have the opportunity to see a new movie called "Spinning Boris," which purports to tell the story of how two California-based campaign consultants, George Gorton and Dick Dresner, allegedly managed to pull off President Boris Yeltsin's come-from-behind re-election victory in 1996.

The timing of the film's premiere is perhaps more ironic than the Showtime network schedulers likely had in mind. The film depicts a time when political consultants were at the peak of their power and influence in Russia -- now they are at their nadir. Few Russian consultants closely associated with Yeltsin's campaign even remember Gorton or Dresner, but if Russia's future national elections proceed like this one, there will be little need for campaign consultants -- Russian or American. Lawyers and security specialists, yes. But spin doctors? No.

Unlike Yeltsin in 1996, Russian President Vladimir Putin today has no need to struggle to win back public support. Since assuming office in April 2000, Putin has enjoyed consistent approval ratings of over 70 percent. The Russian economy is enjoying strong growth -- 7 percent GDP growth this year -- and retirees, the segment of the population most likely to vote, credit Putin with the fact that their pension checks arrive on time.

With the prospect of being able to coast to an easy re-election victory, it's perhaps unsurprising that Putin has not surrounded himself with Russian versions of George Gorton, frantically pulling out the stops for the final push before ballot day. Yes, there are campaign headquarters across Russia, but there have been no campaign commercials for Putin. No election posters emblazoned with his image are hanging from telephone polls. There has not been any need.

One state-controlled national television network gave Putin two hours and 38 minutes of "overwhelmingly positive" coverage during the first two weeks of the official campaign period, when all of the other candidates combined received a total of only 22 minutes, a recent OSCE report on the media found. All the other channels have followed suit.

But it's not just election spots that have become redundant in the age of "managed" media -- it's the entire art of campaigning. In an interview with the weekly "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal" last month, Marat Gelman, the spin doctor who orchestrated the surprisingly good showing of the Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc in the 7 December Duma elections, commented that a new kind of "technology of power" has appeared, one that is "a lot more effective than the political technology that people like me can suggest." This new technique, according to Gelman, relies on using instruments such as tax inspections, prosecutorial inquiries, and court cases against one's political rivals. A Moscow-based political consultant told me last fall that the methods of the Federal Security Service (FSB), such as collecting compromising materials and organizing "special operations" to discredit one's rivals, are also popular. For one thing, they're cheaper. No consultant or firm has to be paid. And for another, they are just as effective -- if not more so.

Presidential candidates Sergei Glazev and Irina Khakamada and former candidate Ivan Rybkin have all accused the Kremlin of resorting to hardball tactics during the campaign. Khakamada charges that the presidential administration pressured potential financial sponsors of her campaign. Last month, the day after former Yukos oil company executive Leonid Nevzlin publicly pledged his support for Khakamada, the Prosecutor-General's Office issued an international arrest warrant for him. Nevzlin, a close associate of the jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii and major shareholder in oil giant Yukos, lives in Israel.

But it has been Glazev who has complained more vigorously than any of the other candidates about a campaign of pressure against him and his supporters. And it was Glazev whom most political analysts considered the only serious challenger to Putin. No one predicted that he could win the election, but many analysts thought his showing might be strong enough to force a second round of voting. In addition, the Kremlin likely worried that a strong performance in the race would help him mount an even more powerful challenge in 2008, when Putin's handpicked successor will be running.

According to Glazev, his authorized representatives in the regions have been facing pressure from local authorities. His campaign headquarters in the Republic of Udmurtia was raided. Glazev also charges regional and local authorities with interfering with his efforts to meet with voters and journalists. An alleged bomb threat was the pretext for disrupting a scheduled press conference in Yekaterinburg, and in Nizhnii Novgorod he had to conduct a press conference outdoors after the building where the event was scheduled suffered a power cut.

In January, Glazev told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau that he had "already been visited by some rather influential people who tried to blackmail me, saying that if I do not renounce my candidacy mountains of slanderous materials would be thrown at me." In a development that could be the most harmful to his long-term political future, Glazev was stripped of his post as head of the Motherland faction in the State Duma by his fellow faction members. Glazev has accused the presidential administration of being behind the effort.

Although Glazev and Khakamada have complained to the Central Election Commission about media coverage, neither has gone to the courts or police asking that criminal cases be opened with regard to the other incidents. Duma Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin (Motherland), who led the effort to strip Glazev of his post in the Motherland faction, denies that he has been carrying out the Kremlin's orders. To muddy matters further, Glazev and Khakamada have been accused of being Kremlin puppets.

While it's true few politicians in Russia these days can truly be called independent, Glazev has served more as a punching bag than puppet, as his steadily declining approval rating attests. Since 10 January, according to the Public Opinion Foundation, Glazev's rating has dropped almost 20 percent, while the ratings of all of Putin's other "challengers" -- with the exception of Ivan Rybkin -- increased slightly.

With no real challenger, it's perhaps little wonder that the main problem facing the Kremlin these days is getting people to bother to vote. Political consultants might have been of some assistance in luring people to the polls. But again the trend in Putin's Russia appears to be toward coercion rather than persuasion. What's left of the independent media tell of pressure being exerted on local officials to secure the desired election results. For example, the health-care directorate of the Khabarovsk Krai administration has reportedly ordered local hospitals not to admit patients without absentee ballots.

Meanwhile, in California, Gorton's latest client, recently elected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lured a record number of first-time voters to the polls. But then the Terminator probably doesn't need any extra muscle.

OUSTED AFGHAN MINISTER'S BACKERS TAKE TO THE STREETS
An estimated 1,000 members of Hizb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan) called on Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai to reconsider his decision to dismiss Mohammad Mohaqeq from his post as planning minister at a rally in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif on 12 March, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Mohaqeq, who leads a faction of Hizb-e Wahdat, claimed on 9 March that Karzai improperly dismissed him after a dispute over division of responsibilities within the government, while a spokesman for the Afghan leader claimed that Mohaqeq resigned (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004). AT

AFGHAN SOLDIERS REPORTED KILLED IN LAND-MINE BLAST
Two Afghan soldiers died and three others were wounded when their vehicle hit a land mine in eastern Afghanistan on 11 March, AIP reported the next day. An Afghan commander is reportedly among the injured. AIP reported that the incident occurred in the Saberi District of Khost Province, while a military commander in Khost was quoted by AP as saying the explosion occurred in Yaqubi District and that one soldier was killed and five others were wounded. The casualties are part of the combined forces of Afghan and coalition troops that are fighting militants and terrorists in the area, AIP reported. AT

U.S. MILITARY BASE IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN COMES UNDER ATTACK
A base used by U.S. forces in the Kandahar Province came under fire from rockets and small arms on 10 March, Radio Afghanistan reported. One civilian was injured in the incident, but it was unclear from the report which side inflicted the injury. An unidentified spokesman for the U.S. military suggested the attackers belonged to the Hizb-e Islami of former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. AT

TWO NEW AFGHAN POLITICAL PARTIES REGISTERED
The Afghan Justice Ministry has officially registered two new political parties, Afghanistan Television reported on 10 March. The new groups are Hizb-e Esteqlal-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (Islamic Independence Party of Afghanistan) and Hizb-e Hambastagi-ye Melli-ye Jawanan-e Afghanistan (National Solidarity Youth Party of Afghanistan). The report did not elaborate on the parties' platforms or their leaderships. Presidential and parliamentary elections are officially slated for June, although both are likely to be postponed because of the difficulty of ensuring security and registering eligible voters. Only a handful of political parties have been officially registered since a new law on political parties was enacted in September. (For the English version of the Afghan law on political parties, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 September 2003.) AT

CHECKPOINTS INAUGURATED ALONG IRAN-AFGHANISTAN BORDER
Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali arrived in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad on 11 March to participate in an inauguration ceremony for a number of new border posts, IRNA reported. The same day, 10 such posts were inaugurated at Herat Province's Islam Qaleh checkpoint, Iranian state radio's Dari-language service reported from Mashhad. Khorasan Province Governor-General Hassan Rasuli said at the inauguration ceremony that 15 more border posts will be built, and this will be paid for with $2 million allocated by the Iranian government. The object of building the border posts, Rasuli said, is to improve Iran-Afghanistan relations and to curb narcotics trafficking. BS

IRAN REQUESTS DELAY OF NUCLEAR INSPECTION
Piruz Husseini, Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told IRNA on 11 March that Tehran has asked IAEA inspectors to delay their scheduled visit to Iran because of the 20 March celebration of Norouz, the Iranian new year, IRNA reported. The inspectors were scheduled to arrive on 12 March. BS

IRAN'S FUTURE COOPERATION WITH IAEA AWAITS AGENCY'S RESOLUTION
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said on 11 March that Iran will announce its position on future cooperation with the IAEA after the agency's Board of Governors passes its resolution on Iran's nuclear activities, ILNA reported. The board is expected to vote on the draft resolution on 12 March, the "Financial Times" reported. The draft resolution reportedly is critical of Iran for failing to be forthright on the extent of its nuclear pursuits, but is seen as something of a compromise, with European states agreeing to it only after the United States dropped its demand that the issue immediately go to the UN Security Council, which could sanction Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2004). Iranian leaders are unhappy about the resolution, according to the "Financial Times," but Europe has shown a greater resolve in monitoring Iran's nuclear activities following disclosures about the nuclear marketing network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and revelations about the discovery of advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuge designs in Iran. BS

WHITE HOUSE CONTINUES 'NATIONAL EMERGENCY WITH RESPECT TO IRAN'
U.S. President George W. Bush on 10 March renewed the national emergency regarding Iran that was declared in Executive Order 12957 of 15 March 1995, the White House website reported (see http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/03/20040311-4.html). The order was originally taken in reaction to the threat posed to U.S. national security, foreign policy, and economy by the government of Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, support for international terrorism, and efforts to undermine the Middle East peace process. The renewal is distinct from the emergency renewal of November (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 November 2003). Extension of EO 12957 continues the ban on U.S. investment in Iran's energy sector. BS

TEHRAN SAYS IT IS OPEN TO U.S. OIL COMPANIES
Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh said on 6 March that there are no restrictions on U.S. firms wanting to participate in the development of Iran's oil fields, IRNA reported. He was commenting on speculation that U.S. companies have been invited to participate in Japanese development of the Azadegan oil field. "Not only in the Azadegan field in the form of cooperation with Japan, but any tender that American companies opt to participate, no problem will be created for them on our part," Namdar-Zanganeh said. Not only does renewal of EO 12957 (see above) ban U.S. investment in Iran's energy sector, but under the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA; P.L. 104-172) any company that invests $20 million or more in the development of Iran's energy resources faces possible sanctions. President Bush signed the "ILSA Extension Act of 2001" (H.R. 1954) in August 2001 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report, 13 August 2001). BS

FOUR SUNNI MOSQUES ATTACKED IN BAGHDAD
Four Sunni mosques were attacked in the Iraqi capital over a 24-hour period from 10-11 March, Dubai's Al-Arabiyah television reported on 11 March. Two explosive charges were detonated at the entrance to two mosques, while worshippers were attacked with hand grenades at two other mosques in the city. "Our mosques are attacked daily with hand grenades, light machine guns, and even heavy machine guns," said Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i, spokesman for the Sunni Awqaf Office. At least two imams were also gunned down this week in Baghdad, Al-Arabiyah reported. The Iraqi Governing Council issued a statement on 12 March condemning the attacks, Voice of the Mujahedin radio reported on 12 March. "While we strongly denounce these criminal, cowardly acts against the houses of God and the faithful, we know very well that the aim is to shake the national unity and stir sedition," the statement read. KR

CPA HEAD SAYS MORE ATTACKS EXPECTED IN IRAQ
Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer on 11 March said he expects more attacks to take place in Iraq before the 30 June transfer of power, Reuters reported the same day. "We predicted that the situation would become more dangerous and I think it will," Bremer said, adding that security will be tight in Karbala next month, when 5 million Shi'ites are expected to gather for the religious festival of Arbain, which commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. The holy day is expected to fall on 10 April, which would coincide with the anniversary of the overthrow of the Hussein regime, Reuters reported. Bremer noted that only six individuals carried out the 2 March attacks at Karbala during the Ashura religious holiday. "There were a million people there and you can't search a million people," he said. "We have to be realistic, there's no such thing as 100 percent security." KR

CIA DIRECTOR SAYS 'LOW' CHANCE OF CIVIL WAR IN IRAQ
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on 9 March that the CIA sees a low chance of civil war in Iraq, Reuters reported the same day. "The political process that has emerged and the apparent intent of all sectors of this community to participate in this process I think mitigates" the possibility that civil war will break out, Tenet said. "We have to watch this very carefully however. Trends [in Iraq] change very, very quickly." KR

POSSIBILITY THAT IRAQI POLICE CARRIED OUT ATTACK ON COALITION CONTRACTORS PROBED
U.S. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez told reporters in Baghdad on 11 March that coalition officials are concerned about the possibility that Iraqi police might have carried out the 9 March killing of two coalition contractors and their translator, AP reported on 11 March. Sanchez noted that the attackers "were in police uniforms," although he said it has not been established that they were actually police officers. "We are concerned about it," he added. "We know that this has gone on, ... that there are some policemen that have done criminal acts in the past." According to AP, the contractors were gunned down after they were stopped at a fake checkpoint by five Iraqis in police uniforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2004). The assailants took the contractors' automobile, with their bodies still inside, and were apprehended when Polish troops stopped the car. KR

AL-SADR AIDE DENIES AL-MAHDI ARMY IS AN ARMED MILITIA
Shaykh Hasan al-Zarkani, the chief of the Martyr Al-Sadr Information Office and an aide to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said in a statement to London's "Al-Hayat" that the Al-Mahdi Army established by Muqtada al-Sadr is not an armed militia, the daily reported on 11 March. "We are an ideological army, not armed militias," he said. "All we have are no more than small guns that do not constitute an army. We have no financial resources, manpower, training camps, or any facilities to build an army." However, Al-Zarkani rejected U.S. demands that militias disband, saying: "Why should they demand that we dissolve our armed militias," seemingly acknowledging that the Al-Mahdi Army indeed has an armed militia. Al-Zarkani also criticized the Kurdish peshmerga for not disbanding its forces. KR

RUSSIAN OIL GIANT RETURNS TO BAGHDAD
LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov and Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum signed a memorandum in Baghdad on 11 March on Russian assistance in restoring Iraq's petrochemical infrastructure and in training personnel to work in the oil industry, Western and Russian media reported. Alekperov said the document is the first step toward restoring LUKoil's position in Iraq. Under the Hussein regime, LUKoil was a leading player among the more than 200 Russian companies active in Iraq. Alekperov first of all hopes to regain a $5 billion contract to develop the West Qurna-2 oil deposit, a contract that was renounced shortly before the beginning of the U.S.-led military campaign to oust Hussein (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002), the BBC reported on 11 March. If Alekperov, with U.S. consent, manages to reach an agreement with the Iraqi administration, LUKoil could gain access to fields with estimated reserves of at least 800 million tons of oil, the BBC noted. At present, LUKoil's total annual production is not more than 80 million tons. VY

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