MINISTER PAINTS ROSY PICTURE OF CAPITAL FLIGHT...
Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said on 22 March that capital flight from Russia fell to less than $3 billion in 2003 and that this year it has ceased completely, RIA-Novosti reported. The government expects that for the first time since the early 1990s, net capital inflow to Russia will reach $3 billion to $4 billion this year, Kudrin said. He added that the government will fight capital flight through so-called tax-optimization schemes by changing legislation and pursuing criminal cases. "There are some absolutely illegal schemes, and they are a subject for the law enforcement organs," Kudrin said. He added that it is possible that the government might offer an amnesty for capital that returns to the country in order to increase public trust in law enforcement and to ensure that capital is "most efficiently invested into the economy." VY
...WHILE FORMER CENTRAL BANK HEAD HAS MORE GLOOMY FORECAST
Speaking at the Russian Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on 18 March, State Duma Deputy and former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko said that serious economic difficulties await Russia in the year ahead, because the country is still too dependent on a sluggish global economy and on revenues from oil exports, TV-Tsentr reported on 19 March, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 22 March and "Trud" reported on 23 March. Gerashchenko, who is considered one of Russia's leading financial experts, said that in 2005-07 annual economic growth in Russia will fall to between 2.5 and 3.5 percent, the influx of petrodollars will weaken and, as a result, the value of the ruble will decline. These circumstances will cause an overheating of financial markets and exacerbate Russia's debt-repayment problem. As a result, Russia faces the real possibility of a default by 2007, Gerashchenko warned. "Kommersant-Daily" noted that none of the economists present at Gerashchenko's speech took exception to his gloomy forecasts. VY
RUSSIA WARNS OF FURTHER MID-EAST VIOLENCE...
Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said on 22 March that Israel's assassination earlier that day of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza City will lead to a new upsurge in violence in the Middle East, RTR reported. "It could cancel out the efforts of the international mediators who elaborated the Road Map peace plan," Yakovenko said, referring to a Middle East settlement plan drafted by the United States, Russia, the EU, and the UN. Under these circumstances, Russia is appealing to both Israel and the Palestinians to demonstrate restraint, Yakovenko said. VY
...AS FORMER DIPLOMAT SAYS ISRAEL WAS RIGHT TO KILL HAMAS LEADER
Former Russian Ambassador to Israel Aleksandr Bovin, who earlier served as an adviser to Soviet leaders Yurii Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev, said Israel was justified in assassinating Yassin because Yassin wanted to destroy Israel, newsinfo.ru reported on 22 March. Yassin, Bovin said, believed that Israel had no right to exist and he always advocated an uncompromising stance regarding Israel. Bovin noted that this attitude was in contrast to that of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who has, in words at least, sought solutions and compromises in his dealings with Israel. Bovin discounted Hamas statements to the effect that the organization will step up its terrorist attacks against Israel in the wake of Yassin's assassination. He said that any terrorist organization has a limit to the number of attacks it can carry out, and Hamas has already reached its limit. VY
ARKHANGELSK INVESTIGATORS BELIEVE BLAST WAS CAUSED BY SABOTAGE
Arkhangelsk deputy city prosecutor Yurii Shperling said on 22 March that investigators believe that the 16 March natural-gas explosion in a residential building in the city that took 58 lives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004) was deliberately set off, RTR and other media reported. "The investigation has found evidence that the gas feeder pipe in the building, as well as those leading to two nearby buildings, was damaged intentionally," Shperling said. Investigators are looking into the possibility that the motive for the attack was revenge against the Interior Ministry officers who lived in the building. VY
DIPLOMATIC TIFF WITH ESTONIA WIDENS
The Foreign Ministry announced on 22 March that it has expelled two unnamed Estonian diplomats from Moscow for alleged "activity harmful to the interests of the Russian Federation," RTR reported. The expulsion was seen as retaliation for Tallinn's 18 March decision to expel two Russian diplomats from Estonia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004). Their names and positions were not disclosed. The Estonian daily "Eesti Paevaleht," citing unnamed sources, reported on 20 March that the two Russians are officers of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) who were working under diplomatic cover and who were expelled for attempting to acquire secret documents pertaining to Estonia's impending accession to NATO and the EU. The expulsions come in the wake of Lithuania's recent expulsion of three Russian diplomats on suspicion of espionage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004). Moscow stated at the time that it will respond in kind. VY
GOVERNMENT TO FACE NEW HIGHER BREAD PRICES IN MAY
The Moscow Stock Exchange (MICEX) conducted on 22 March a preliminary check on the results of the government's intervention on Russia's grain market and found the measures were successful, but their success could be short-lived, strana.ru reported. According to the website, the low volume of the state's grain reserves will make the positive effect of its intervention very "short term." For the past three years, the state has had to intervene in the market to check rapid rises in grain prices at the beginning of spring. Institute for Agrarian Market Scenarios analyst Igor Pavensko told the website that higher bread prices in May are practically unavoidable. He said the government could only resist the grain market for an extended period, depriving speculators of any opportunity, if it had reserves of at least 4 million to 5 million tons. The article did not indicate the current level of the government's grain reserves. On 5 February, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" issued a similar report to that posted on strana.ru, noting that "government intervention might solve the immediate problem of high bread prices, but it could be storing up problems for later." JAC
IRKUTSK TO FOLLOW IN PERM'S EXAMPLE THIS YEAR...
Following the Duma's approval on 19 March of the creation of Perm Krai from Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug, State Duma Federation Affairs Committee Chairman Viktor Grishin (Unified Russia) said his committee has already received appeals from other regions that wish to merge, "Gazeta" reported on 22 March. He specifically mentioned Irkutsk Oblast and Ust-Ordinskii Buryatskii Autonomous Okrug. According to the daily, deputy presidential administration head Vyacheslav Surkov organized a meeting of Irkutsk Oblast Governor Boris Govorin and Ust-Ordynskii head Valerii Maleev at the Kremlin on 24 February, at which it was agreed that referendums on merging the two regions will be held at the end of the year. JAC
...AS NEW GOVERNOR OF PERM REPORTEDLY ALREADY SELECTED
RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 20 March asked independent State Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin whether he thinks the bill's stipulation that President Putin appoint an acting governor to head Perm Oblast until Perm Krai is formed and elections are held in December 2005 might set a dangerous precedent. Pokhmelkin, who was elected from a single-mandate district in Perm, responded that some danger exists, but he thinks such an appointment will be made only in this "special, exclusive instance, connected with the process of unification." He added that "influential representatives of the oblast elites forged an agreement, and this agreement served as the basis for the future presidential decree." He said that it is "completely obvious" that Putin will appoint current Perm Oblast acting Governor Oleg Chirkunov as governor. Former Perm Governor Yurii Trutnev, who was named natural resources minister on 9 March, appointed Chirkunov acting governor on 12 March. Chirkunov most recently served as the oblast executive branch's representative in the Federation Council. JAC
KEY GOVERNMENT POSTS REMAIN UNFILLED...
As of 20 March, a number of key government posts -- including State Customs Service director and Financial Markets Oversight Service director -- had not yet been filled, in part because wrangling over these posts is still ongoing, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 22 March. Also vacant is the post of Federal Fisheries Agency director. The term of former State Fisheries Committee Chairman Vladimir Burkov expired in late February. According to the daily, the government and the Kremlin believe Burkov should go, but no decision has yet been made about his successor. JAC
...AS MORE VETERANS OF LAST GOVERNMENT FIND NEW POSITIONS...
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov continued to announce on 22 March new appointments to the restructured federal government. Former Deputy Tax Minister Mikhail Mishystin will head the new Federal Real Estate Cadastre Agency, lenta.ru reported. According to RBK, former State Fisheries Committee Deputy Chairman Vyacheslav Bolokhs will oversee the new Federal Ecology and Natural Resources Oversight Service. Former Major Taxpayers Administration Director Rustam Khamitov will head the new Federal Water Resources Agency. Andrei Yatskin, the former head of former deputy presidential administration head Dmitrii Kozak's secretariat, will now become Kozak's deputy head of the government apparatus. Also on 22 March, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin named Federation Council representative (Marii El) Ilya Lomakin-Rumyantsev to head the Federal Insurance Oversight Service, lenta.ru reported. Lomakin-Rumyantsev is also a former Finance Ministry official. Kudrin also appointed Sergei Pavlenko, who formerly headed Kudrin's secretariat, as head of the Federal Finance and Budget Oversight Service, according to ITAR-TASS. JAC
...AND ENERGY MINISTRY OFFICIALS UPDATING THEIR RESUMES
All deputy energy ministers were given notice on 22 March that they will be dismissed, with the exception of former First Deputy Energy Minister Ivan Matlashov, Interfax reported. Matlashov heads the commission that is dismantling the ministry. JAC
VOLOSHIN SIGNS ON WITH ELECTRICITY MONOPOLY
Former presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin will become the chairman of the board of directors of Unified Energy Systems (EES), EES CEO Anatolii Chubais announced on 22 March, Interfax reported. Some newspapers had reported earlier that Voloshin already has an office in EES headquarters. Chubais added that he has already informed the company's board of directors, and neither the majority nor the minority shareholders objected to the nomination. "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 23 March that Chubais made the job offer to Voloshin soon after the latter left the Kremlin in October, but Voloshin did not rush to accept the post. The salary for the post comes from the state budget, and it was necessary for Voloshin to have the "blessing of the president." "Obviously, Aleksandr Voloshin has managed to obtain this," the daily observed. JAC
KAMCHATKA GOVERNOR TOLD NOT TO LEAVE TOWN...
Kamchatka Oblast Governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev has agreed not to leave the oblast capital of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii without the permission of the oblast prosecutor's office, which has filed charges of abuse of office against him, ITAR-TASS reported on 22 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004). Mashkovtsev has maintained his innocence, and he links the investigation to the oblast's December gubernatorial election. The oblast legislature has decided to ask Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov to check the legality of the criminal case against Mashkovtsev, RIA-Novosti reported. JAC
...AS IVANOVO GOVERNOR ALSO FINDS HIMSELF IN TROUBLE
The Ivanovo Oblast prosecutor has begun investigating Ivanovo Oblast Governor Vladimir Tikhonov's real estate transactions, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 20 March. On 19 March, investigators seized documents from the oblast administration relating to how the construction of an apartment for Tikhonov was financed. A 140-square-meter apartment in the center of Ivanovo was built for the governor in 2002 at the cost of 2 million rubles ($70,000), which came from the oblast budget. A year later, the apartment was privatized. Tikhonov has pledged to cooperate with investigators, although he has charged that the case is politically motivated. Both Tikhonov and Maskovtsev are backed by the Communist Party. JAC
ARMENIAN PRESIDENT DENIES AVOIDING MEETING WITH AZERBAIJANI COUNTERPART...
A spokesman for Robert Kocharian denied on 22 March that Kocharian cancelled his planned participation at a conference in Bratislava last week in order to avoid a face-to-face encounter with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev claimed in an interview with an Azerbaijani television channel on 19 March that Kocharian pulled out of the conference as soon as it was announced that Aliyev would also attend in order to avoid meeting with him. LF
...AND FIRES MORE PROSECUTORS
President Kocharian dismissed four prosecutors on 22 March who between them were responsible for seven of Yerevan's 11 raions, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kocharian said the move is intended to strengthen the prosecutor's office and restore its prestige, but some commentators have suggested it was prompted by the opposition's announced intention to launch demonstrations in Yerevan in April to demand Kocharian's resignation (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 27 February and 19 March 2004). LF
ARMENIAN MINISTER DENIES SON'S ALLEGED ROLE IN SHOOTOUT
Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 22 March, Urban Development Minister Ara Aramian denied that his son, Hayk, was behind a fight on 12 March in Yerevan's Triumph cafe, in which five young men received either stab or bullet wounds, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Aramian asked journalists not to draw conclusions on the basis of incorrect information. Also on 22 March, responsibility for investigating the brawl was transferred from the Yerevan prosecutor's office to the Prosecutor-General's Office, Noyan Tapan reported. In an interview published on 18 March in the official daily "Hayastani Hanrapetutiun" and circulated by Groong, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said he has warned ministers to "influence" their relatives' behavior to preclude further such "incidents." LF
EU ENVOY MEETS WITH AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT, FOREIGN MINISTER
Heike Talvitie, who is the EU's special envoy for the South Caucasus, met in Baku on 22 March with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Guliev and President Aliyev, Turan reported. The talks focused on Azerbaijan's relations with the EU, and the prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict. Aliyev expressed the hope that the EU will "make even more active efforts" to that end. Talvitie, for his part, hailed Aliyev's 17 March decree pardoning 129 prisoners, including some persons designated as political prisoners by the Council of Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004). Talvitie added that he hopes for more such pardons, and also that the ongoing trials of opposition activists charged with participation in clashes with police following the disputed 15 October presidential election will be fair, Turan reported. LF
AZERBAIJANI IMAM GOES ON TRIAL
The eighth trial of people charged with participating in the October postelection clashes opened in Baku's Court for Grave Crimes on 22 March, Turan and zerkalo.az reported on 22 and 23 March, respectively. Among the nine defendants is Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, imam of Baku's Djuma mosque, who was taken into custody and charged in December after being summoned as a witness in the case (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 29 January 2004). The presiding judge rejected requests by Ibrahimoglu's lawyers to drop the charges against him because the investigation failed to yield any evidence to substantiate them and to release him from pretrial detention in return for a written pledge not to leave Baku. LF
GEORGIAN PRESIDENT THREATENS TO REIMPOSE SANCTIONS ON ADJARIA
Mikheil Saakashvili warned on 22 March that he will reimpose economic sanctions on Adjaria unless Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze agrees within two days to allow Saakashvili's representatives to begin monitoring procedures at the customs posts at Sarp and Batumi, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. Abashidze said on 21 March that he should in return have the right to name representatives to monitor customs procedures in Poti and at the Vale border crossing. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania dismissed Abashidze's demand to monitor customs at Poti and Vale as unacceptable, Russian media reported. Abashidze also demanded that Tbilisi restore the license of Batumi's Maritime Bank, which has been under investigation since late February. During a telephone conversation late on 22 March, Saakashvili and Abashidze agreed that Georgian Constitutional Court Chairman Dzhoni Khetsuriani will travel to Batumi on 23 March to clarify the status of Saakashvili's representatives. LF
GEORGIAN OPPOSITION LEADER ACCUSES AUTHORITIES OF INTIMIDATION, PERSECUTION
David Gamkrelidze, one of the leaders of the opposition New Rightists, has denounced the failed attempt by Georgian police in Kutaisi to arrest fellow New Rightist David Benidze as "political persecution," Caucasus Press reported on 22 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004). Speaking at a press conference on 22 March, Gamkrelidze further accused the Georgian authorities of trying to spread fear throughout the country in the run-up to the 28 March parliamentary election, and of intimidating local administrators, who in turn are pressuring local residents to cast their ballots for the National Movement-Democrats combined list. Also on 22 March, Zakaria Kutsnashvili, one of the leaders of the Socialist Party, claimed that the National Movement has promised to release Bondo Shalikiani from pretrial detention if residents of Tkibuli cast their ballots for the National Movement in the upcoming election, Caucasus Press reported. Shalikiani was elected to parliament in the 2 November election from a single-mandate district in Tkibuli. He was arrested on 5 March on charges of illegal possession of weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004) LF
ARREST BY GEORGIAN POLICE SPARKS PROTEST IN SOUTH OSSETIA
A demonstration is under way in Tskhinvali, capital of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, to protest the arrest following a shootout with Georgian police on 16 March of Marik Dudaev, Interfax reported on 22 March, citing South Ossetian official Boris Chochiev. A Georgian official from the regional prosecutor's office identified Dudaev on 16 March as the head of a criminal gang responsible for several murders, kidnappings, and robberies. Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze subsequently claimed that Dudaev headed a group of "saboteurs" who were responsible for an explosion earlier on 16 March that caused minor damage to railway tracks near Mtskheta, Caucasus Press reported. The demonstrators in Tskhinvali are demanding that the OSCE Office in Tskhinvali intervene to secure the release of Dudaev, who was wounded in the shootout, according to Interfax. LF
KYRGYZ MINISTER RELIEVED OF POST
Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev on 22 March relieved acting Education Minister Ishenkul Boljurova of her post at her own request, Kyrgyz Television reported. DK
TAJIK PRESIDENT MEETS WITH ISLAMIC OPPOSITION
Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov met on 21 March with Said Abdullo Nuri, leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party, in the course of a meeting with Tajik intellectuals on the eve of Norouz, or new-year holiday, Tajik Television reported on 22 March. Nuri emerged from the meeting with praise for the president. Nuri characterized the attention Rahmonov pays to intellectuals as "something significant," adding that "only the intelligentsia can turn the people's thoughts toward patriotism." Nuri also expressed high hopes for the new year. "I believe that in this new year...we will succeed in tackling our people's problems and pave the way for progress, cultural revival, and economic development," he said. DK
RUSSIAN-TAJIK ANTITERRORISM EXERCISES ON AFGHAN BORDER
Russian and Tajik armed forces began a three-day joint military exercise in southern Tajikistan on 22 March, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The exercises involve Tajik units and regiments from Russia's 201st Motorized Infantry Division. The training scenario involves repelling a terrorist incursion across the Tajik-Afghan border. Nikolai Tkachev, commander of the Russian Volga-Urals Military District, and Abdunazar Abdulhasanov, commander of Tajik ground forces, are directing the exercises, which will conclude on 24 March with firing at the Mumirak military range on the Tajik-Afghan border. DK
BELARUS TRIES TO URGE TAKEOVERS OF COLLECTIVE FARMS
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has issued a decree aimed at attracting investment from Belarusian companies in state-owned collective farms, Belapan reported on 22 March. The decree stipulates that companies taking control of ailing farms before 2006 will be entitled to deferments on those farms' lingering debts, tax arrears, and overdue utility bills. According to the presidential press service, the decree will radically change the situation in the agricultural sector and provides a chance for "hundreds" of collective farms to become profitable. Belarusian Television reported the same day that more than 40 percent of Belarus's collective farms are losing money. JM
UKRAINIAN SPEAKER PREDICTS APRIL APPROVAL OF CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS
Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn told journalists on 22 March that the constitutional-reform bill that was preliminarily approved on 25 December and amended on 3 February (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 10 February 2004) will be passed in its final reading in early April if "parliament follows step-by-step the decisions stipulated by the political agreement [of 18 February]," Interfax reported. Lytvyn was referring to an accord signed last month by 10 pro-presidential caucuses in which they pledge to pool efforts aimed at finalizing constitutional reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). Meanwhile, lawmaker Oleksandr Volkov predicted on 23 March that the constitutional-reform bill will be adopted no earlier than in mid-May. Volkov added that promoters of the reform are facing "a lot of work" to persuade deputies elected under a first-past-the-post system to adopt a fully proportional election law, which is key to Communist Party and the Socialist Party support for the reforms. A bill mandating proportional elections passed in its first reading on 5 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). JM
ESTONIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE SUGGESTS REVAMPING BALTIC ASSEMBLY
Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on 22 March adopted recommendations concerning the future of the Baltic Assembly, an organization formed in 1991 to promote cooperation among the Baltic states, BNS reported. Committee Chairman Marko Mihkelson said the recommendations are intended to make the work of the assembly more efficient after the three states achieve their long-term goal of becoming members of the EU and NATO. The recommendations include reducing the size of the delegations for each country from 20 to six members. The revamped Baltic Assembly would coordinate the positions of the three countries in international interparliamentary organizations and be able to express common positions on important matters. Mihkelson called for the assembly to expand its work with the Nordic states in order to facilitate the eventual formation of a Nordic-Baltic parliamentary assembly. SG
HELCOM CONFERENCE IN RIGA CALLS FOR GREATER ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS
Latvian Prime Minister Indulis Emsis formally opened the three-day conference of the Baltic Sea Environmental Protection Commission, known as the Helsinki Commission (Helcom) in Riga on 22 March, BNS reported. The conference, marking Helcom's 30th anniversary, focuses on international cooperation in maritime-environment protection. Latvian Environment Protection Minister Raimonds Vejonis said Helcom is preparing a statement that will call on the heads of state of its member countries to consider the sensitivity of the Baltic Sea's ecosystem when making any decisions that could affect it. Lithuanian Environmental Protection Minister Arunas Kundrotas touted Helcom's success, but said plans by the Russian oil major LUKoil to begin offshore drilling near the ecologically sensitive Curonian Spit pose a new challenge. Helcom has been led since July 2002 by Latvian parliament deputy Inesa Vaidere, who is to be replaced on 1 July by Lithuanian State Environmental Protection Inspectorate head Arturas Daubaras. SG
LITHUANIAN COURT ORDERS RECONSIDERATION OF PRESIDENTIAL BACKER'S EXPULSION
The Vilnius District Administrative Court ruled on 22 March that the Migration Department was premature in ordering the expulsion of Yurii Borisov, "Lietuvos zinios" reported the next day. Borisov, an ethnic Russian, was embattled President Rolandas Paksas's greatest financial supporter during his presidential campaign, and later was granted Lithuanian citizenship at the president's request, sparking controversy and impeachment proceedings against Paksas. The court ruled that the Migration Department based its 9 January decision too heavily on the State Security Department declaration of Borisov as persona non grata, and stated that his expulsion order should be reviewed. "I think that the people of Lithuania can breath easier again since justice, nevertheless, exists," Borisov said of the ruling. "If the court had made another decision, I would have thought that this is not a law-based, but a police state." SG
COALITION INSIDER URGES POLISH PREMIER TO STEP DOWN
Deputy parliamentary speaker Tomasz Nalecz of the Labor Union, which governs in coalition with Prime Minister Leszek Miller's Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), told Polish Radio on 23 March that Miller should resign. "A politician who is negatively assessed by 90 percent of society cannot head a government, even if someone feels this is an unfair evaluation," Nalecz said. The previous day, SLD Deputy Chairman and Interior Minister Jozef Oleksy called on the SLD to withdraw its support for Miller and thus force him out of the prime minister's post, PAP reported. Also on 22 March, Jan Rokita, the leader of the opposition Civic Platform, said early parliamentary elections should take place as soon as possible, adding that each day under Miller's government is a "day lost for Poland." Rokita said the end of Miller's government and an anticipated split within the SLD (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004) would represent "the ultimate end of communist Poland." "This [would mark] the final step of the Solidarity revolt, the one omitted in 1990 and 1991, when no one outlawed the communists," PAP quoted Rokita as saying. JM
POLISH JOURNALISTS STAGE SIT-IN OVER SLANDER SENTENCE
A group of Polish journalists on 22 March launched a three-day protest in front of the Sejm in defense of Andrzej Marek, a reporter from Police in northwestern Poland who was recently sentenced to three months in jail for slandering a local official, Polish media reported. The protesters took 30-minute turns locked in a tiger cage rented from the Warsaw Zoo and placed outside the parliamentary building. PAP reported that a court in Szczecin on 23 March postponed the execution of Marek's sentence, which was to begin the same day, for six months. JM
POLISH FILM PRODUCER ACCUSES PUBLISHER OF PROVOKING 'RYWINGATE'
Film producer Lew Rywin, who is on trial for allegedly soliciting a $17.5 million bribe from the publisher of "Gazeta Wyborcza" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004), suggested to a Warsaw district court on 23 March that he was duped by that paper's publisher and has become a victim in a "political game," PAP reported. Rywin said Agora publishing house Chairwoman Wanda Rapaczynska initiated the bribery proposal that is at the center of the "Rywingate" scandal. Rywin said Rapaczynska urged him to meet with "Gazeta Wyborcza" Editor in Chief Adam Michnik in July 2002 and present the would-be bribe as his own idea. JM
SLOVAK TRADE UNION KICKS OFF ANTIGOVERNMENT CAMPAIGN AHEAD OF REFERENDUM
The president of the Slovak Confederation of Trade Unions (KOZ), Ivan Saktor, launched the group's official campaign in the city of Presov on 22 March to rally support for a nonbinding referendum on early elections, TASR reported. Saktor and other senior KOZ leaders will tour the country, and the group will run advertisements in the press to get out the vote ahead of the 3 April referendum, which will take place the same day as presidential balloting. Opposition parties have earmarked millions of crowns to back the recall request, according to TASR, while the governing parties have sought to encourage voters to ignore the referendum. Pundits have given the initiative little chance of success. A "yes" vote would force a vote on the matter in parliament, but the opposition would be unlikely to muster sufficient support to oust Mikulas Dzurinda's four-party coalition. AH
SLOVAK COMMISSIONER URGES EU REFORMS TO BOOST COMPETITIVENESS
Slovakia's candidate for a seat on the European Commission, Jan Figel, said in Berlin on 22 March that the EU must implement "the Lisbon agenda" to increase employment and otherwise shake the EU out of its economic lethargy, CTK reported. "There must be more jobs, more competitiveness, more openness both internal and external, more flexibility. The reforms will be more painful the longer we postpone them," Figel said. EU leaders are due to meet later this week in Brussels to explore ways to dramatically increase EU competitiveness in the next six years. Figel stressed the need for an EU-wide patent law and a lifetime-education program. AH
FORMER SLOVAK PARLIAMENTARIAN SENTENCED FOR FRAUD
Former lawmaker Imrich Sladecek became the first postcommunist parliamentarian to be handed a prison sentence when a Zilina regional court sentenced him on 22 March to five years behind bars for embezzlement of local employment-office funds, TASR and CTK reported. The court concluded that Sladecek pledged to devote a public subsidy to the employment of workers at Centrogel, where he was an executive, but used the funds for other purposes. Sladecek entered the parliament as member of the then-governing Party of Civic Understanding (SOP) in 1998 before turning independent, and had his parliamentary immunity stripped in 2000 until he lost his seat in the 2002 elections. He can still appeal the verdict. AH
VISITING NATO CHIEF WANTS HUNGARY TO BE MORE ACTIVE
Visiting NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer urged Hungary on 22 March to participate actively in the transformation of the military alliance and contribute "easily and quickly" deployable units to NATO, Hungarian media reported. De Hoop Scheffer told Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy that Hungarian soldiers must take part in dangerous missions, if necessary, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Meanwhile, the governing Socialist Party and Free Democrats pushed a draft Defense Ministry resolution through parliament on a long-term modernization plan for Hungary's armed forces, Hungarian radio reported. The plan stresses the need for mobile units able to fight terrorism and boosts cooperation between Hungary and NATO. Opposition parties argued that a smaller volunteer military is incapable of defending the country. MSZ
NATO CHIEF WARNS KOSOVARS AGAINST VIOLENCE...
NATO Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer said in Prishtina on 22 March that the recent violence in Kosova was "orchestrated and organized by extremist factions in the Albanian community [and] is unacceptable," Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 22 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2003 and 19 March 2004). He criticized unnamed "people who think quite wrongly...that by perpetrating these criminal acts of ethnic violence they bring their [political] ambitions closer" to realization. De Hoop Scheffer and Harry Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova, called on the province's ethnic Albanian leaders to criticize the violence unambiguously. President Ibrahim Rugova, Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi, and other leaders have already criticized the violence, stressing, however, that the unrest ultimately stemmed from the uncertainty regarding Kosova's final political status. On 22 March, Rugova again said that independence is necessary to promote Kosova's democratic and economic development, the "International Herald Tribune" reported. Elsewhere, UN police said 28 people died in the recent violence and 870 were injured. Police have arrested 163 people of an estimated 50,000 who took part in the unrest. PM
...AS DOES THE EU
Meeting in Brussels on 22 March, EU foreign ministers agreed that extremists must not be allowed a role in shaping Kosova's future, Reuters reported. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that "there is broad agreement that we...concentrate on stabilizing and managing the situation, and then make progress on standards before there is progress on final status." One unnamed European diplomat criticized Kosova's Albanian leaders for "impotent hand-wringing from the sidelines." A second unnamed diplomat noted, however, that "at the end of the day, [Kosova] is in the hands of the UN and NATO. We can only offer them our moral support." Elsewhere, EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana told RFE/RL that the Kosovar leadership needs to react more energetically in the face of ethnically motivated violence. PM
SERBIA RAISES DEMANDS
Meeting with European Commission President Romano Prodi in Brussels on 23 March, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica put forward his proposal for Kosova's "cantonization" or "decentralization," dpa reported. He stressed that the plan does not affect the final status of the province. Holkeri and the Kosovar Albanian leadership previously rejected "cantonization" as partition, which they called unacceptable (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004). In Prishtina, Nebojsa Covic, who is Belgrade's point man for Kosova, said on 22 March that the United States should use its influence in the UN to establish a "military administration" in Kosova. Covic again called on Holkeri to resign, saying that Holkeri refused in a recent interview with U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) to describe the recent violence as the "ethnic cleansing" of Serbs. Holkeri told NPR that the term "ethnic cleansing" was too strong to describe the two days of violence. Meanwhile in Belgrade, the Serbian Interior Ministry announced on 22 March the sacking of Belgrade police chief General Milan Obradovic and the police chief of the capital's Old Town district, Colonel Vladan Lukovic, in connection with the recent burning of a mosque there by an angry crowd, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 March 2004). PM
RUSSIA REPORTEDLY SENSES A BALKAN OPPORTUNITY
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said in Moscow on 23 March that his country intends to play a "most active role" in settling the situation in Kosova, ITAR-TASS reported. Kosova will top the agenda for the 2 April meeting of the Russia-NATO Council in Brussels, he added. The previous day, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu to Belgrade to discuss emergency aid for Serbs from Kosova as well as the future of the province, the Moscow daily "Kommersant-Daily" reported. The daily suggested that Russia, which withdrew its military forces from the Balkans in 2003, is now trying to increase its "political and economic presence [there]. The unfolding Kosovo crisis offers it a chance." According to "Kommersant-Daily," Russia wants to strengthen its political role in the Balkans by helping to negotiate a settlement acceptable to all concerned and act as one of its international guarantors. "Shoigu is [reportedly] accompanied by a team of Russian business executives, who are considering investing in the region," the daily added. Moscow has also shown a keen interest in investing in the Serbian economy in recent years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 24 September 2003 and 23 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 31 July 2001). PM
MACEDONIA PRESENTS EU-MEMBERSHIP APPLICATION
In Dublin on 22 March, a Macedonian delegation headed by Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski officially presented that country's application for EU membership to Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, MIA reported. "In accordance with the...will and...determination of our citizens, we submit an application for membership in the European Union," Crvenkovski said. He added that a difficult path toward EU membership lies ahead for Macedonia, which has, however, no alternative. Ahern said the future of the western Balkans lies in its inclusion in Europe. The original application ceremony was planned for 26 February but called off because President Boris Trajkovski died in a plane crash in Herzegovina that day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February, and 11 and 12 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February and 5 March 2004). UB
POLISH PRIME MINISTER IN ROMANIA
Romanian President Ion Iliescu told visiting Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller during their meeting in Bucharest on 22 March that while bilateral relations have been "constant" over the last few years, there are many opportunities for improvement, Mediafax reported, citing a presidential press release. After meeting with his Romanian counterpart Adrian Nastase, Miller said Poland will continue to support Romania's efforts to meet its 2007 target date for EU accession. He also offered to share Poland's experience with Romania in its negotiations with the union. Meanwhile, Iliescu on 22 March cancelled his official visit to Israel scheduled for 22-24 March, as a result of the increased tensions following Israel's assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Presidential adviser Victor Opaschi will take Iliescu's place at the opening of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv. ZsM
SENTENCED ROMANIAN ARMY GENERALS TO BE RETRIED
The Supreme Court on 22 March accepted former Prosecutor-General Joita Tanase's request that sentenced Generals Victor Stanculescu and Mihai Chitac be granted retrials regarding their roles in repressing the December 1989 revolt in Timisoara, Mediafax reported. Stanculescu and Chitac were each sentenced in 1999 to 15 years in prison in connection with the military's intervention to quash the revolt. Tanase requested in 2001 that the generals be retried because procedural mistakes were made during their trials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February and 8 and 9 August 2001). The court's approval of Tanase's retrial request came after it postponed the decision five times. ZsM
FORMER ROMANIAN RULING-PARTY DEPUTY SENTENCED IN FRAUD CASE
The Supreme Court on 22 March sentenced former parliamentary deputy Gabriel Bivolaru to five years in prison on charges that he defrauded a state-owned bank in the mid-90s, Mediafax reported. He was ordered to pay more than 2.25 trillion lei (approximately $69.3 million) in compensation to the Romanian Development Bank. The court also ordered that after his release, Bivolaru be stripped of certain civil rights, including the right to be elected. The decision cannot be appealed. Bivolaru represented in parliament from 1996-2000 the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR), which later became the Social Democratic Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2002). ZsM
BULGARIAN DEFENSE MINISTER, CHIEF OF GENERAL STAFF DISAGREE OVER MILITARY REFORM
Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov said on 20 March that the 45,000-strong Bulgarian military will be reduced to 22,000-39,000 troops, mediapool.bg reported. Svinarov said a decision on the final number will be made during debates coordinated by the Defense Ministry over the country's Strategic Defense Review. However, General Nikola Kolev, the army's chief of General Staff, said such decisions can only be made by the parliament, vsekiden.com reported. Kolev added that military's structure, functions, and future tasks must be assessed before a decision on its troop strength can be made. The defense minister also announced that a special, 5,000-strong brigade modeled after the Italian Carabinieri will be formed by the end of 2005. The members of this brigade will undergo the same training as the counterterrorism units of the police. The brigade will provide domestic security and may also be deployed abroad. UB
MACEDONIAN PRESIDENTIAL RACE BEGINS
Two weeks after the tragic death of Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski in a 26 February plane crash, most political parties have nominated their candidates for the vacant position.
In addition, a number of independent candidates have announced that they will join the race. The elections are slated for 14 April; since none of the candidates is likely to win a majority in the first round, it is very likely that a second round will take place two weeks later.
The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), which is the country's largest opposition party, nominated legislator Sasko Kedev as its presidential candidate on 15 March. The nomination of the 42-year-old Kedev came as no surprise, as he was the clear favorite of party chairman Nikola Gruevski. Like Gruevski, Kedev belongs to the moderate faction within the VMRO-DPMNE (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 30 May 2003).
Kedev is a member of the party's executive committee, and, according to "Utrinski vesnik," leads the party's foreign-relations committee. In Macedonia, Kedev is known as an internationally experienced heart surgeon rather than as a politician. During the election campaign, Kedev will focus on the economy, security and foreign policy, and Euro-Atlantic integration, according to MIA news agency.
His candidacy might be hampered by the fact that former Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski will also run for president. Like Kedev, Boskovski is a legislator for the VMRO-DPMNE, but is known for his hawkish views. Since Boskovski was not supported by the VMRO-DPMNE leadership, he decided to run as an independent candidate.
In Macedonia, potential candidates must be supported by either 30 legislators or collect 10,000 signatures to be able to officially register as candidates. As Boskovski is still highly popular among the party's more radical followers, he was able to gather the necessary signatures within a relatively short period of time.
The Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), which has lost its position as the strongest ethnic Albanian party to the governing Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), initially intended to run opposition politician Arben Xhaferi, who remains the most popular Albanian politician in Macedonia. However, Xhaferi's name was withdrawn because the PDSH feared that his candidacy could be challenged by his opponents because of a constitutional provision under which candidates must have permanently resided in Macedonia for at least 10 of the past 15 years. Xhaferi, who lived in Prishtina, Kosova, before returning to his native Macedonia, reestablished his residency only in 1999. The PDSH has nominated Zedi Xhelili, a lawmaker, as its new presidential candidate.
Even had Xhaferi not withdrawn from the race, it is likely that many Albanian voters prefer Gezim Ostreni, the BDI's secretary-general. Ostreni was the military chief of staff of the National Liberation Army (UCK), which launched an insurgency against government forces in 2001. Later, the UCK leaders formed the BDI and joined the government.
Last fall, Ostreni headed the government body that coordinated the disarmament of the civilian population. His nomination nonetheless came as a surprise because the BDI initially said it would support the candidate of its coalition partner, the Social Democratic Union (SDSM).
The opposition ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD) has said that it will support Ostreni's candidacy, while the small and radical National Democratic Party (PDK) announced that it will boycott the elections.
Three minor candidates have also entered the race: Branko Janevski of the Social Democratic Party of Macedonia, former PDSH legislator Sali Ramadani, and one Mirko Hristov.
Finally, on 17 March, the Central Committee of Macedonia's governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM) unanimously approved Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski as its presidential candidate. The SDSM's other potential candidate, Tito Petkovski, who reportedly had strong support from local party organizations, decided not to challenge Crvenkovski's bid.
Petkovski lost against Trajkovski in the 1999 presidential elections because he failed to attract enough Albanian votes. Thus, the more moderate Crvenkovski might have better chances than Petkovski against the conservative candidates. "The key...lies with Crvenkovski," Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski said on 15 March.
AFGHAN ARMY CONTINGENT REACHES TENSE WESTERN PROVINCE...
Around 500 members of the Afghan National Army arrived from the Afghan capital in the western city of Herat on 23 March, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported the same day. Kabul resolved to deploy up to 1,500 National Army troops in Herat following the 21 March assassination of Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Mirwais Sadeq and subsequent fighting between troops loyal to Sadeq's father, Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan, and forces loyal to General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah, the commander of Herat's 17th Division (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004). The fighting, which has reportedly killed as many as 100 people, subsided after Ismail Khan's troops took command of the city and of 17th Division headquarters. The entry of Afghan National Army troops into Herat marks the first time since the demise of the Taliban in late 2001 that Kabul has had forces in Ismail Khan's province, where he governs as a self-styled "amir," or ruler. AT
...AS DEMONSTRATORS TAKE TO HERAT'S STREETS
Demonstrators took to the streets of Herat on 22 March to voice opposition to commander Nayebzadah, whose whereabouts were unclear for hours following his reported encirclement by Ismail Khan's troops (see below), "The New York Times" reported the following day. Protesters also shouted slogans condemning the Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and the United States, the daily added. Demonstrators burned the home of Herat's chief justice, Mawlawi Khodadad, Hindukosh News Agency reported on 22 March. Minister Sadeq's funeral has been postponed until 23 March because of the demonstrations, "The New York Times" reported. AT
MISSING AFGHAN COMMANDER RESURFACES
General Nayebzadah spoke with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on 23 March, claiming that he and some of his troops are in Karokh District, east of the city of Herat. Nayebzadah said he lost 35 troops while he was still inside his division's headquarters on 21 March, but he said many more might have been "martyred" by Ismail Khan's forces after he left the city. Nayebzadah said he has obeyed and will continue to obey orders from the central government in Kabul, adding that he will return to Herat to assume his position if ordered to do so. An investigation should be conducted by Kabul regarding the incidents of 21 March, Nayebzadah said, adding that Ismail Khan launched hostilities without any provocation. The 17th Division commander urged Kabul to put Ismail Khan -- who continues to wield both political and military power in Herat Province despite a May 2003 pledge to the contrary -- on trial. Nayebzadah said he left Herat before the arrival of a delegation from Kabul and thus has not been in contact with those officials. AT
FOUR DEAD AFTER U.S. BOMBING IN CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN
A spokesman for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said on 22 March that three armed men and one woman were killed in a 19 March air raid in the Chahar Chino District of Oruzgan Province, the official Afghan Bakhtar News Agency reported. Hilferty said the bombing was a response to the deaths of two U.S. soldiers in Oruzgan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2004). The "armed people" were virtually surrounded but neither surrendered nor allowed civilians to leave the area, Hilferty said, according to Bakhtar. An injured woman was hospitalized after the raid and publications apparently belonging to the resurgent Taliban movement were discovered in the area, Bakhtar reported. AT
EU ENCOURAGES IRANIAN NUCLEAR OPENNESS
European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on 22 March urged Iran to be more cooperative with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), AFP and Reuters reported. Their statement said Iran should be more proactive and it should act "in a spirit of full transparency." Worries over Iranian nuclear ambitions prompted the EU not to resume trade talks with Tehran that were put on hold last year. Cristina Gallach, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana's spokeswoman, said, "The ministers did not resume discussions on the trade talks given that it is considered premature until Tehran makes more progress on the nuclear question and other political aspects," Reuters reported. Tehran-EU relations are facing other difficulties, as EU foreign ministers condemned the February parliamentary elections in Iran. An unnamed EU diplomat told RFE/RL on 24 February that Solana said a "cooling off" period is needed in the relationship. BS
IRAN STEPS UP CONDEMNATION OF YASSIN ASSASSINATION
A 22 March message from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described that day's assassination of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin by Israeli forces as a "heinous crime," state television reported. Khamenei predicted that the incident will encourage anti-Israel forces: "The blood of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin watered the fecund tree of Islamic resistance, and it will also further fuel the fire created by the wrath of the self-sacrificing Palestinian nation." Khamenei said of Israel, "The Zionist regime is a usurper regime and its government is an artificial government," adding, "They are doomed to extinction." Hussein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute and the managing editor of "Kayhan" newspaper, said, "The martyrdom of Sheikh Ahmad shows that the only way to deal with the Zionists is to wage armed struggle against them." Shariatmadari predicted, "Sheikh Ahmad's martyrdom will lead to the escalation of the armed struggle against the Zionists." BS
TEHRAN CONDEMNS U.S. IN CONNECTION WITH HAMAS LEADER'S DEATH
Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami on 22 March criticized Israel for the killing of Yassin earlier the same day, and in this connection he also criticized the United States, IRNA reported. "I expect that the international associations react against the criminal Zionist regime and its ill-intentioned supporters, the U.S. in particular," Khatami said. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps condemned the assassination in a 22 March statement and pinned some of the responsibility on the United States, ISNA reported. "Today, no one is unaware of the fact that the Zionist regime has increased its savagery as a result of the all-out support it was given by the Great Satan, the criminal America," the IRGC statement said. It went on to say the incident will revive the Palestinian uprising against Israel. BS
IRAN-IRAQ PILGRIMAGES CONTINUE
The deputy chief of police in Iran's Ilam Province said on 22 March that about 14,000 Iraqi pilgrims have entered the country in the last six days, IRNA reported. The same official added that 1,400 Iranian pilgrims have entered Iraq in the same period. The previous day, Kermanshah Province police chief General Javad Hamed said that 5,000 Iranian pilgrims cross the border every day, IRNA reported: 3,500 people at the Mehran border crossing and 1,500 at the Shalamcheh border crossing. The Mehran crossing was closed on 2 March because of security concerns after the Ashura bombings in Iraq, and it was reopened on 17 March, ISNA reported. Ilam Province Governor-General Karim Shurangiz went on to say, "Only convoys of pilgrims who have obtained permits from the State Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization can go to Iraq via this border post," ISNA reported. Shurangiz added that contrary to the past, when only one passport was required for every 37 people, now each person must have a passport. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq announced on 14 March that it will close 16 of the 19 official crossing points between Iraq and Iran on 20 March (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 March 2003). BS
U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT DESIGNATES ANSAR AL-ISLAM AS FOREIGN TERRORIST ORGANIZATION...
The U.S. State Department on 22 March announced that it has designated the Iraq-based militant group Ansar Al-Islam as a foreign terrorist organization. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher in a press release posted on the department's website (http://usinfo.state.gov) said: "Ansar Al-Islam, which operates in Iraq, has close links to and support from Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda and [its leader] Osama bin Laden participated in the formation and funding of the group, which has provided safe haven to Al-Qaeda in northeastern Iraq. Ansar Al-Islam trained in Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. The group has been one of the leading groups engaged in anticoalition terrorist attacks in Iraq." KR
...AS IRAQI POLICE SAY AL-QAEDA RECRUITING IRAQIS TO BE SUICIDE BOMBERS
An Iraqi police officer told "The Times" of 22 March that Al-Qaeda is increasingly recruiting young Iraqis, brainwashing, and even drugging them before sending them out to commit terrorist acts against their own people. Iraqi police Colonel Karim Sultan told the British daily that raids along the Saudi border before the 2 March Ashura bombings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004) led to the arrest of a dozen men in possession of audiotapes of Al-Qaeda leader bin Laden and some $20 million worth of narcotics. "It's a huge network. They have a lot of different contacts,... bin Laden is starting to funnel his money in here," Sultan said. "It's a long process to brainwash them. They seduce them with money, then start to use drugs on them until they are half conscious." The Iraqis are then sent out on missions. The antispasmotic prescription drug Artane is a favorite because it reportedly induces a sense of invulnerability in the user. Sultan speculated that recruitment is taking place in villages, where he has heard Al-Qaeda has sponsored lectures. KR
AL-SISTANI, GOVERNING COUNCIL CONDEMN ASSASSINATION OF HAMAS FOUNDER
Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a statement on his website (http://www.Najaf.org) on 22 March condemning Israel's assassination of Hamas founder Shaykh Ahmad Yassin as a "repulsive criminal act" and calling on Arab and Muslim people to "consolidate their ranks and unify their word and work diligently to liberate the seized [Palestinian] land and reinstate the stolen rights." Al-Sistani said Yassin was a scholar and martyr "who dedicated his life to the service of his country and religion and became an icon of patience and resistance." Meanwhile, Iraqi Governing Council member and head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim told Al-Jazeera on 22 March that Yassin's "martyrdom" "not only affects Iraq but it also affects the Arab and Islamic nation." He added that Yassin's killing "will make us all reconsider our positions with regard to resisting the Zionists. It will also urge us to strengthen our unity, know our enemies, and stand beside the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause." Governing Council members Salah al-Din Muhammad Baha al-Din and Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i also condemned Yassin's assassination in interviews with Al-Jazeera. KR
MAYSAN MARSH ARAB COUNCIL OPENS DIALOGUE TO REHABILITATE MARSHLANDS
The Maysan Marsh Arab Council held its founding conference in Amarah on 20 March to discuss possibilities for rehabilitating Iraq's marshlands, the U.S. State Department announced in a 22 March press release (http://usinfo.state.gov). The council's goal is to "provide a voice for the Marsh Arabs of Maysan so their interests and concerns will be factored into national and international plans that affect the marshes," the press release stated. Nearly all the marshlands were drained in Iraq in the 1980s by the Hussein regime. Water was diverted for massive irrigation projects, leading to massive environmental degradation. The program also aided the regime by thwarting the Shi'a opposition's ability to use the marshlands for cover. Conference participants discussed "numerous issues surrounding proposed plans to re-flood parts of the vast network of wetlands along the Tigris River basin." Participants expressed concerns over possible environmental and agricultural impact, managing returning refugee populations, and the allocation of arable land. Several follow-up meetings are expected. KR