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Newsline - March 26, 2004


PUTIN RESHUFFLES THE PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION...
President Vladimir Putin announced on 25 March that he has signed a decree restructuring the presidential administration, Russian media reported. Under the new structure, presidential administration head Dmitrii Medvedev will have only two deputies -- Igor Sechin and Vladislav Surkov --instead of the previous seven deputies and one first deputy, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day. Deputy administration heads Aleksandr Abramov, Dzhakhan Polleva, Larisa Brycheva, Sergei Prikhodko, Viktor Ivanov, and Igor Shuvalov will become presidential assistants, Interfax reported. The position of first deputy administration head has not been filled since Dmitrii Kozak became head of the government apparatus on 9 March. According to Medvedev, the restructured administration will have three tiers. Some departments, such as the presidential press service directorate and the information directorate, will be merged, while others, such as the economics directorate, will be abolished, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the decree, Brycheva was named a presidential assistant and will also head the State-Legal Administration, RIA-Novosti reported. Aleksei Gromov will remain head of the Kremlin press service, and Igor Shchegolev will remain director of protocol. JAC

...AS TITLES CHANGE BUT PORTFOLIOS APPEAR TO REMAIN THE SAME
According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 26 March, it is likely that some of the new presidential assistants will continue to oversee the same areas as they did previously. For example, Prikhodko will continue to oversee foreign relations, and Ivanov will remain responsible for personnel matters and state decorations. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 25 March and "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 24 March reported that former Media Minister Mikhail Lesin will be given a position within the presidential administration. JAC

PRIME MINISTER SLASHES NUMBER OF DEPUTY MINISTERS
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov announced on 25 March that each federal minister will have only two deputy ministers, Russian media reported. According to "Vremya novostei" on 19 March, government apparatus head Kozak suggested trimming the number of deputy ministers, a proposal that Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref reportedly vigorously protested. According to the daily, Gref has 12 deputy ministers and three first deputy ministers, while Kudrin has nine deputy ministers and three first deputy ministers. JAC

PUTIN OFFERS ADVICE ON IMPROVING SECURITY IN NORTH CAUCASUS...
Addressing Interior Ministry officers from the Southern Federal District in Yessentuki on 24 March, President Putin said that the recent terrorist incidents in Russia clearly indicate the shortcomings of the country's law enforcement organs, RTR reported. Speaking specifically of the North Caucasus, Putin said that in addition to growing terrorism and extremism, an "organized crime environment was created here during the 1990s" that seriously impairs the normal development of the region and the entire country. He also said that "widespread unemployment, poverty, and uncontrolled migration" are factors promoting instability in the region. Therefore, Putin said, the Interior Ministry must work to improve the general situation in the region. "We should protect people from criminal pressure and bureaucratic racketeering. We should bring civilized, legal norms to the migration flow," Putin said. Putin's visit to the North Caucasus is his first trip to the regions following his 14 March re-election. VY

...AS MINISTER PROMISES NO CUTS AT INTERIOR MINISTRY
Speaking at the same Yessentuki conference on 24 March, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev said that the number of Interior Ministry personnel will not be reduced as a result of the government's ongoing administrative reforms, RTR reported. "This is not an issue," Nurgaliev said. He added, however, that the ministry's work must be improved, and he promised to continue to wage "a decisive battle against corruption" within the ministry, which is reputed to be one of the most corrupt institutions in Russia. VY

MILITARY CAUTIOUS ABOUT NATO BALTIC PATROLS
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 24 March that NATO's recent decision to deploy aircraft in the Baltic states and to patrol their airspace "does not currently pose a threat to Russia," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2003). "As far as I know, NATO is deploying four fighters, and that measure does not affect the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe [CFE]," Ivanov said. Interfax reported that First Deputy Chief of the General Staff Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii, speaking at the Duma the same day, said: "We will watch how NATO acts. If its behavior is aggressive, we will revise our policy," Interfax reported. "But we will not start a war over this." VY

ANALYST SAYS DEMOCRACY IS NOT A PRIORITY FOR RUSSIA
Speaking at a session of the Council for a National Ideology in St. Petersburg on 24 March, Russian Public Relations School President Yurii Lyubashevskii said that "strengthening democracy, civil society, and the independent media are not tasks for [President] Putin," RosBalt reported. "These were the declared goals of presidential candidates [Irina] Khakamada and [Grigorii] Yavlinskii." Khakamada polled about 4 percent in the 14 March presidential election, and Yabloko head Yavlinskii ran a distant third against Putin in 2000. Putin's goal must be to instill order to the state, to increase Russia's international influence, and to improve the economy, Lyubashevskii said. "The priority of any president must also be to develop culture and science, to facilitate the growth of national pride in a majority of the country's population," he added. The Council for a National Ideology was created earlier this year by a group of St. Petersburg political scientists. Former National Strategy Council Director and Kremlin insider Stanislav Belkovskii plays a leading role in the organization. VY

FORMER DEFENSE MINISTER TESTIFIES IN CASE OF SLAIN JOURNALIST...
Former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev made a surprise appearance on 24 March as a witness in the trial of six men accused of involvement in the 1994 killing of investigative journalist Dmitrii Kholodov, "Izvestiya," "Nezavisimaya gazeta," and NTV reported on 25 March. Prosecutors allege that former Airborne Troops Colonel Pavel Popovskikh and five other intelligence officers killed Kholodov with a booby-trapped briefcase at the behest of Grachev, who was angered by Kholodov's many articles about corruption within the Defense Ministry. VY

...AND DENIES ALL INVOLVEMENT...
In his testimony, former Defense Minister Grachev admitted that he had "no positive feelings" for Kholodov and said he called on his subordinates to "sort out" matters with the journalist, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 March. But by "sort out" Grachev said he meant uncovering Kholodov's sources of information about the military. "If somebody took my words incorrectly, that is his problem," Grachev said. He also said he believes that the information campaign against him and his ministry was initiated by former oligarch and Media-MOST head Vladimir Gusinskii and "Moskovskii komsomolets" Editor in Chief Pavel Gusev. Kholodov wrote for "Moskovskii komsomolets," and the bomb that killed him exploded in the newspaper's editorial offices. The current trial is the second in the case. In June 2002, the Moscow Military District court acquitted Popovskikh and the others (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June 2002), but the Supreme Court overturned that verdict in May 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May 2003) and ordered a new trial. VY

...AS NEWSPAPER EDITOR OFFERS A DIFFERENT VERSION
"Moskovskii komsomolets" Editor in Chief Gusev testified in the Kholodov case trial on 25 March and noted that Kholodov wrote many harshly critical articles about corruption in the army and, particularly, in the group of forces then stationed in Germany, newsinfo.ru and other media reported. "I know that Pavel Grachev personally ordered that Kholodov's access to Defense Ministry briefings be cut off," Gusev said. He testified that in the summer of 1994, Kholodov told colleagues that he feared for his life. After Kholodov's murder, Gusev said, the paper tried to investigate the killing but was unable to uncover any information. VY

FORMER DUMA DEPUTY FOUND MURDERED IN CYPRUS...
Police in Cyprus announced on 25 March that they have found the bodies of two Russian businessmen and their female translator in a house near Paphos, RosBalt reported. All three victims had been shot in the head. One of the men was identified as former Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Shevchenko. After serving in the Duma from 1990 to 1995, he went on to become the director of the State Polar Academy. The other male victim was Yurii Zorin, a former Duma national security adviser who later went into business. Police said they do not yet know the motive for the murders, but they suspect it is linked to Shevchenko's business activity. VY

...AS SOURCES LINK HIM TO STAROVOITOVA CASE
According to unofficial information from unnamed law enforcement sources in St. Petersburg, former Duma Deputy Shevchenko was suspected of having been involved in the 1998 murder of liberal Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, gazeta.ru reported on 25 March. The sources said police suspect that Shevchenko and fellow former LDPR Duma Deputy Mikhail Glushchenko might have organized the murder. Allegedly, the two men have links to the notorious Tambov organized-crime group. The men currently on trial for the killing are believed to members of the group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003 and 6 January 2004). Investigator recently said that four people -- Sergei Musin; Pavel Stekhnovskii; and two people who were not identified, but who some analysts believe could have been Shevchenko and Glushchenko -- are still wanted in connection with the case and all are believed to be abroad, gazeta.ru reported. VY

KEY FINANCIAL MARKET POST FILLED
On 25 March, government apparatus head Kozak issued a decree appointing Aleksandr Zharov as his assistant for press relations, ITAR-TASS reported. Zharov is a former Health Ministry spokesman and adviser to the chairman of RIA-Novosti. On 25 March, Prime Minster Fradkov appointed Stanislav Ilyasov director of the Federal Fisheries Agency. On 24 March, Fradkov appointed Oleg Vyugin to head the Federal Financial Markets Service. Vyugin is a former Central Bank deputy chairman, a former deputy finance minister, and a former chief economist at Troika-Dialog. "Kommersant-Daily" reported earlier in the week that there was much wrangling over this post within the Kremlin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2004). JAC

YUKOS SHAREHOLDER OFFERS TO FUND NEW KHAKAMADA PARTY...
In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 25 March, one of Yukos's largest shareholders, Leonid Nevzlin, said he is ready to finance Irina Khakamada's new Free Russia party if his financial support is sought. He said he is sure that he would be just one of many financial supporters and that he does not intend to take part in forming the party's political program. Former presidential candidate Khakamada announced on 24 March that she is quitting the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and will concentrate on forming the new party, Russian media reported. Free Russia submitted its registration papers to the Justice Ministry the same day, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 25 March. An ad hoc committee to create the party will now work on creating at least 45 regional branches with a national total of at least 10,000 members. JAC

...AS PARTY EXPECTS 'HELP' FROM SPS AND YABLOKO RANK AND FILE
Ad hoc committee member and manager of Khakamada's presidential campaign Marina Litvinovich told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that Free Russia will not ask for organizational help from the leaderships of SPS or Yabloko, but "the grassroots members of the parties will probably support us," as they did during the presidential election. Khakamada resigned as co-chairwoman of SPS after the party failed to surpass the 5 percent hurdle for entering the State Duma in the 7 December elections. Khakamada explained that her new party has fundamental differences with SPS, but she is willing to coordinate efforts with "all democratic parties, including Yabloko." JAC

DUMA TO DUMP HOPELESS BILLS FROM CONSIDERATION
The State Duma approved on 24 March amendments to its standing rules that will allow committees to remove legislation from consideration in its second reading if the committee deems the bill has no prospects or is pointless, RosBalt reported. The vote was 327 votes in favor. Duma Regulations Committee Chairman Oleg Kovalev spoke in favor of the amendment, saying that it will allow the "liquidation of a backlog of bills, which have not been examined by the Duma in two to three years." However, Communist faction member Viktor Kuznetsov disagreed, saying that the amendment violates the right of federal subjects to introduce and recall legislative initiatives. JAC

FEDERATION COUNCIL APPROVES NEW REGION
The Federation Council adopted on 24 March the draft constitutional law establishing the process for unifying Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug, Russian media reported. The vote was 156 in favor, and 134 votes were needed, RosBalt reported. The draft law was approved by the Duma on 19 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004), and now needs only the president's signature to become law. Also on 24 March, the upper legislative chamber confirmed new senator Vasilii Likhachev, who represents the legislature of Ingushetia. Likhachev, a former diplomatic envoy to the EU and a former speaker of Tatarstan's legislature, replaces Igor Kamenskii. JAC

AGRARIAN PARTY EXPECTED TO OUST CURRENT LEADER
More than 30 regional branches of the Agrarian Party are demanding the removal of party leader Mikhail Lapshin, who is currently also president of the Altai Republic, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 March, citing the party's press service. Lapshin, 69, has been the party's leader since 1993. According to the agency, the party is on the brink of bankruptcy following its failure to clear the 5 percent threshold in the 7 December State Duma elections. A party congress will be held in Moscow Oblast on 28 March to discuss the party's future. According to RosBalt, party members are expected to consider four potential replacements for Lapshin: Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeev, former presidential candidate and State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov (Communist), former State Duma Agriculture Committee Chairman Vladimir Plotnikov, and party Deputy Chairman Aleksei Chepa. JAC

CONTROVERSIAL ARMENIAN PARLIAMENTARIAN APPOINTED REGIONAL GOVERNOR
Surik Khachatrian, a parliament deputy with close ties to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia, was named on 25 March governor of Syunik District in southeastern Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Khachatrian succeeds former Traffic Police head Edik Barseghian, who has been named to head the government's department for emergency situations, Noyan Tapan reported on 26 March. Khachatrian rose to prominence in 1992-94 as a commander of military units in his home district of Goris during the Karabakh war. He was first elected to parliament in 1995, and became a senior member of the Yerkrapah Union of Karabakh war veterans. Khachatrian and his extended family reportedly control the local administration and most businesses in Goris, which is part of the broader Syunik District. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT DENIES EXISTENCE OF AGREEMENTS ON KARABAKH SETTLEMENT
Ilham Aliyev told journalists in Baku on 24 March on his return from an official visit to Tashkent that there is no truth to Armenian claims that during talks in early 2001 in Paris and Florida, his father and predecessor, former President Heidar Aliyev, reached agreement with Armenian President Robert Kocharian on resolving the Karabakh conflict, zerkalo.az reported on 25 March. Armenian officials have repeatedly said the two presidents reached an informal agreement, but the late Azerbaijani president and other senior Azerbaijani officials have steadfastly denied it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 May 2001 and 15 March and 17 June 2002, and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 October 2003). Addressing a conference in Bratislava last week, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said Heidar Aliyev and Kocharian committed to paper in Florida in April 2001, but did not sign, an agreement reached orally in Paris two months earlier. Guliev argued that one cannot speak of an "agreement" that remained unsigned. Also on 24 March, it was reported that Guliev will not travel to Prague for talks with Oskanian scheduled for 29 March, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 25 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 26 March 2004). LF

MORE SENTENCES HANDED DOWN IN CONNECTION WITH POSTELECTION VIOLENCE IN AZERBAIJAN
A further 17 people charged with participating in the 15-16 October clashes with police in Baku that followed the disputed 15 October presidential election were sentenced in two separate criminal trials that ended on 24 March, Turan reported. All the defendants were pronounced guilty. Four were sentenced to between three and 3 1/2 years' imprisonment; and the remaining 13 were given four-year suspended sentences. In 10 trials in recent weeks, Baku's Court for Grave Crimes has sentenced 22 people to prison terms for their role in the unrest. Fifty-five others received suspended sentences. On 23 March, a group of opposition activists still being held in detention in Bailov jail pending trial on similar charges formed the 16 October Movement, which plans to campaign for the rehabilitation of those sentenced for their participation in the post-election clashes and for the rights of all political prisoners, Turan reported. Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Douglas Davidson called on the Azerbaijani authorities to ensure that the people still in detention receive swift, fair, and transparent trials, Turan reported on 26 March. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT SAYS HE DOES NOT NEED OPPOSITION REPRESENTATION IN PARLIAMENT...
Mikheil Saakashvili told a press conference in Tbilisi late on 24 March that there is no need for an opposition presence in the parliament whose remaining 150 members are to be elected on 28 March, according to Caucasus Press and a 25 March press release circulated by the opposition New Rightists. The latter quoted Saakashvili as saying that he does not need people in parliament who would "stab him in the back" by opposing his planned reforms. Saakashvili said he wished the Supreme Court had annulled the outcome of the 2 November parliamentary election in the 75 single-mandate constituencies, where several supporters of now former President Eduard Shevardnadze won parliamentary representation, as did deputies from several opposition parties. Saakashvili told a briefing on 25 March that he would not object if parties that support his initiative to strip parliament deputies of immunity surmount the 7 percent barrier for parliamentary representation in the 28 March vote, the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported. The only opposition party that supported that initiative is Ertoba, which is headed by former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili, and which, according to opinion polls, might not receive the required minimum 7 percent of the vote (see End Note below). LF

...ACCUSES ADJAR LEADER OF SEEKING TO RECRUIT MERCENARIES
President Saakashvili also told journalists on 24 March that he has information that Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze is seeking to hire foreign mercenaries in Chechnya and Ukraine for use in the event of an armed standoff with the central Georgian government, Caucasus Press reported. Abashidze denied those allegations. In Kyiv, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry summoned Georgian Ambassador Grigol Katamadze on 25 March and demanded an explanation of Saakashvili's remarks, which it termed "inadmissible" in the light of Ukraine's efforts to help resolve the Abkhaz conflict, Caucasus Press reported. In a 25 March statement carried by Kavkaz-Tsentr and chechenpress.com. Chechen resistance forces spokesman Movladi Udugov likewise denied Saakashvili's "anti-Chechen" claim. Udugov alleged that the Russian leadership planned to invade Georgia in 2000 after subjugating Chechnya, and failed to do so only because Russian troops were fully occupied battling the Chechen resistance. The Georgians should therefore be grateful to the Chechens, Udugov reasoned. LF

ADJAR LEADERS' DIPLOMATIC PASSPORTS REVOKED
The diplomatic passports of more than 500 Adjar officials -- including Adjar State Council Chairman Abashidze; his son, Giorgi, who is mayor of Batumi; and Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze -- have been revoked in order "to remind them that it is inadmissible to exceed their competencies," Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze announced on 24 March, Caucasus Press reported. President Saakashvili ordered a review of all diplomatic passport holders last month after former President Shevardnadze's son-in-law, Gia Djokhtaberidze, was apprehended at Tbilisi airport as he was about to leave the country on a diplomatic passport (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). LF

GEORGIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT CHAIRMAN CONTINUES TALKS IN BATUMI
Dzhoni Khetsuriani reached agreement during talks with Abashidze in Batumi on 24 March that, at the suggestion of Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer, constitutional lawyers from Tbilisi and Batumi work together to define the precise division of competencies between the central Georgian government and that of the Adjar Autonomous Republic, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, despite his pledge to Saakashvili to comply with the latter's demands by 25 March, Abashidze has not yet lifted the state of emergency imposed in Batumi on 14 March, disarmed the volunteer corps, or permitted Saakashvili's representatives to begin their task of monitoring proceedings at the Sarp customs post on the border between Adjaria and Turkey and at Batumi's port. The two officials returned to Tbilisi late on 25 March, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN POLICE ROUND UP REGIONAL CRIME GANG
In a two-phase operation on 24 March, some 200 Georgian police and special-purpose troops landed from 10 helicopters in the village of Etsera in the mountainous Svaneti District of western Georgia, Georgian media reported. The village is the home base of the so-called Aprasidze criminal clan, which is suspected of committing numerous murders, robberies, and kidnappings over the past 12 years -- including the abduction in 2001 of Levan Kaladze, the brother of a famous Georgian soccer player. Kaladze's whereabouts remain unknown. Following a 40-minute gun battle, in which clan head Omekha Aprasidze and two of his sons were killed, police succeeded in disarming the remaining gang members, 25 of whom were arrested. Commenting on the operation later on 24 March, President Saakashvili said "the Al Capone era in Georgia" is over, Caucasus Press reported. He implied that Aprasidze considered himself unassailable because he had enjoyed the tacit support of the previous Georgian leadership. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT MEETS HALLIBURTON BOSS...
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev met in Kazakhstan on 25 March with David Lesar, chairman and CEO of Halliburton, the controversial U.S. energy-industry service company that used to be headed by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Khabar TV reported the same day. The two discussed possible uses for Halliburton's high-technology expertise in the Kazakh oil industry. Lesar also noted that Halliburton has had good experiences with its Kazakh employees. DK

...AND RECENTLY ACQUITTED JOURNALIST
President Nazarbaev also met on 25 March with "Vremya" correspondent Gennadii Benditskii, who was recently acquitted of embezzlement charges that many observers said were filed in retaliation for his activities as a journalist, Kazinform reported. The two discussed the media market, media-government relations, and media-related legal issues. "The country's president was not indifferent to my situation, a situation that was very difficult for me. I...thanked him," Khabar TV quoted Benditskii as saying. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT URGES GRADUAL LANGUAGE TRANSITION
Askar Akaev on 25 March told a forum of representatives of various ethnic groups that the implementation of Kyrgyz as the state language should take place gradually, Kabar news agency reported. "Our strategic task today is to form a single national space that should provide an opportunity for all ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan to realize their potential," Akaev said. He also suggested that it might take until 2015 to switch all official business to Kyrgyz. Even as he stressed that the time has come to develop Kyrgyz as a state language, Akaev was careful to note that a new decree will ensure that minority-language rights are protected, akipress.org reported. DK

TAJIK PRESIDENT SPEAKS WITH KAZAKH, UZBEK LEADERS
Imomali Rahmonov spoke by telephone on 25 March with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Tajik Television reported the same day. Discussions focused on the upcoming summits of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, as well as a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. DK

CSTO SECRETARY-GENERAL STARTS REGIONAL TOUR IN TAJIKISTAN
Nikolai Bordyuzhav arrived in Tajikistan on 24 March to kick off a three-country tour of Central Asia, RIA-Novosti reported on 25 March. The secretary-general began his trip with meetings with Tajik Defense Minister Colonel General Sherali Khayrulloev and Security Council Secretary Amirqul Azimov, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. They discussed the upcoming CSTO meeting in June in Astana. Bordyuzhav will also visit Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan during his tour that ends on 2 April. DK

UZBEK PARATROOPERS TAKE TAJIK DETOUR
Tajik border guards were reportedly taken by surprise on 23 March when 23 Uzbek paratroopers unexpectedly landed in Tajikistan in the Isfara section of the Tajik-Uzbek border, RIA-Novosti reported on 24 March. According to Tajik authorities, the Uzbek troops ended up on Tajik territory as a result of a "strong wind that carried them over to the neighboring state." Twenty-two of the paratroopers were returned to Uzbekistan on 25 March after talks between officials from both countries, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. One paratrooper reportedly sustained injuries when he landed on a mine, and is receiving treatment in a Tajik hospital. Though the issue was reportedly resolved to both sides' mutual satisfaction, Tajik authorities stressed to their Uzbek counterparts the need to inform one another about military exercises in border regions. DK

IMF PLUGS ACCELERATED REFORMS IN UZBEKISTAN
Uzbek Economy Minister Rustam Azimov and Erik de Vrijer, head of the IMF mission to Uzbekistan, discussed economic reforms in Uzbekistan during a 24 March news conference in Tashkent, Uzbek Radio reported the same day. Summing up a two-week visit that began on 10 March, de Vrijer called on Uzbekistan to speed up its economic reforms, RBK reported. "The IMF mission and Uzbek authorities had a useful exchange of views on the government's program of macroeconomic and structural reforms for 2004," RIA-Novosti quoted De Vrijer as saying. For his part, Azimov said that "Uzbek officials and the IMF delegation agreed on speeding up full transition to a market economy," Uzbek Radio reported. A two-week visit in February highlighted disagreements between the IMF and Uzbek authorities over reforms. In reference to that visit, Eurasianet quoted de Vrijer as saying on 19 March that the Uzbek authorities "are reluctant to surrender their control over the economy and ensure genuine economic freedom. The government seriously lacks knowledge and realism in its assessment of the situation." DK

BELARUSIAN POLICE ARREST FREEDOM DAY DEMONSTRATORS
Police arrested at least five demonstrators in Minsk on 25 March, including opposition Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Some 300 people gathered at a square in downtown Minsk to mark the 86th anniversary of the proclamation of the short-lived, non-Bolshevik Belarusian Democratic Republic (BNR) that emerged following the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917. The Belarusian opposition commemorates the BNR anniversary every year as Freedom Day. JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT APPOINTS DEPUTY PREMIER FOR RUSSIAN AFFAIRS, STATE BROADCASTING CHIEF
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 24 March appointed Vasil Dalhalyou, who has headed the Brest Oblast Executive committee for the past four years, as a deputy prime minister and presidential representative for Russia, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Dalhalyou was a deputy prime minister in the Belarusian government in 1997-98. Lukashenka also appointed Uladzimir Matvyaychuk, deputy director and ideologist in a glass fiber factory in Polatsk, Vitsebsk Oblast, as head of the Belarusian State Television and Radio Company. JM

BELARUSIAN GOVERNMENT TO LICENSE NONSTATE DISTRIBUTION OF PRESS
Belarus's Communications Ministry has announced that all print-media outlets wishing to have independent subscription and distribution systems should apply to the ministry for a license by 1 April, Belapan reported on 24 March. The ministry warned that the dissemination of print publications through nonstate subscription and distribution networks without a license will be regarded as illegal after 1 May. The new directive reportedly targets primarily nonstate newspapers that have recently developed their independent distribution systems. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT PASSES FULLY PROPORTIONAL ELECTION BILL
The Verkhovna Rada voted 255 to four on 25 March to pass a bill prescribing parliamentary elections under a fully proportional party-list system, Ukrainian news media reported on 26 March. Other innovations in the parliamentary-election system include lowering the current 4 percent voting threshold for parliamentary representation to 3 percent, lengthening the election campaign from 90 to 120 days, increasing the amount of the deposit that a party must submit before an election from 255,000 ($48,000) to 512,500 Ukrainian hryvnyas, and mandating the use of transparent ballot boxes. If signed by the president, the bill will take effect on 1 October 2005. The Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko bloc caucuses did not participate in the vote. The adoption of a proportional election law is a sine qua non for Socialist Party and Communist Party support for the constitutional reforms that are being pushed by the pro-presidential camp in Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 23 March 2004). JM

U.S. OFFICIAL URGES UKRAINE TO HOLD DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage urged Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv on 25 March to ensure a democratic transfer of power in the presidential election due on 31 October, Ukrainian and foreign news agencies reported. Armitage met with President Leonid Kuchma, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko. "We would like to get back to a situation where we can have high-level dialogue again, but in order to do so we have to be convinced that there are free, fair, open, and democratic elections that are conducted free of intimidation," Armitage said in Kyiv. "I would like to pay tribute to the Ukrainian president for his brave decision regarding Iraq and thank him for great bravery of those Ukrainian servicemen who are working in Iraq," Interfax quoted Armitage as saying before his meeting with President Kuchma. JM

SPLIT EXPOSED IN ESTONIA'S CENTER PARTY
A split within the Center Party widened on 25 March when parliament deputy Liina Tonisson nominated Peeter Kreitzberg as a candidate for the post of parliament deputy chairman despite the fact that the party faction officially approved Enn Eesmaa as its candidate over Kreitzberg the previous day, BNS reported. Parliament subsequently elected Toomas Savi of the Reform Party and Kreitzberg as deputy chairmen. After the vote, Center Party board member Heimar Lenk said that Tonisson and Kreitzberg should be expelled from the party because, according to the party's statutes, "decisions of the faction are binding on all faction members." The split emerged on 24 March when Vilja Savisaar, the wife of Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar, narrowly defeated former Defense Minister Sven Mikser in a hotly contested vote for the right to head the party's faction. SG

LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT URGES PRESIDENT TO RESIGN FOLLOWING CONTROVERSIAL APPOINTMENT...
The parliament on 25 March overwhelmingly approved a resolution urging Rolandas Paksas to resign after he appointed his controversial supporter, Yurii Borisov, for a presidential-adviser post, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. The resolution, which passed by a vote of 42-0 with three abstentions, called on Paksas not to wait for the outcome of the parliament's upcoming vote on his impeachment. Presidential press spokeswoman Jurate Overlingiene confirmed that Paksas named Borisov as one of his top advisers, but then withdrew the appointment. Paksas later apologized for the appointment, but indicated he will not step down, saying work remains that "I am sure I can and must do," AFP reported. News of the offer led all of the president's foreign-policy advisers, Eitvydas Bajarunas, Ricardas Slepavicius, and Egle Janauskaite, to submit resignation letters. Paksas subsequently said in a televised statement that "over the recent days [Borisov] led me to understand that allegedly compromising material could be used against me if I did not take him on as an adviser," AFP reported. "I sincerely apologize to all whom my actions have offended," "Lietuvos rytas" quoted him as saying. "I hope for your forgiveness and human understanding. I am placing my fate in your hands." SG

...AS HIS MAIN SUPPORTER IS PLACED UNDER HOUSE ARREST
The Vilnius 2nd District Court ruled on 25 March to fulfill the Prosecutor-General's Office request to place Borisov under house arrest for violating his pledge to avoid contact with President Paksas, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. Borisov earlier agreed not to leave Lithuania and surrendered his passport pending an investigation into allegations he had threatened the president. Earlier on 25 March Borisov met with Paksas in his office and also played tennis with the president on 23 March, when he reportedly was promised a presidential adviser's post. Following the court decision, Borisov told AFP from the Vilnius apartment where he is confined that "it is not my practice to collect compromising material and use it against those, whom I helped." He added that "the president speaks about an allegedly compromising agreement, but what is it? There can not be allegedly compromising material -- it is either compromising or it is not. If the president has proof, let him show it." SG

REBEL LAWMAKERS LEAVE POLAND'S RULING SLD TO FORM NEW PARTY...
More than 20 Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) lawmakers led by Sejm speaker Marek Borowski announced on 25 March that they are leaving the ruling SLD in order to create a new left-wing party, Polish media reported. The official launch of a new party, reportedly to be called the Social Democracy of Poland (Socjaldemokracja Polski), is expected on 26 March, PAP reported, quoting SLD lawmaker Bogdan Lewandowski. Sejm deputy speaker Tomasz Nalecz from the Labor Union, which is the SLD's coalition partner, said on 25 March that he will try to convince the entire Labor Union to join Borowski's future party. JM

...AS SLD LEADER HERALDS IMMINENT DECISIONS ON PARTY, CABINET
SLD Chairman Krzysztof Janik said on 25 March that decisions regarding the future of Prime Minister Leszek Miller's cabinet and the organizational structure of the SLD will be made at a SLD National Council conference planned for 27 March, PAP reported. "This government has made many mistakes," Janik said at a meeting with local SLD activists. "Let us undertake [on 27 March] a debate about the future of this government with [Miller], in his presence and looking him straight in the eye, and not at the camera lenses and the radio microphones." Miller is currently attending an EU summit in Brussels. JM

CZECH WEEKLY LOSES APPEAL OF DEFAMATION VERDICT
The Czech weekly "Respekt" will be forced to print an apology to former government adviser Miroslav Slouf after the country's Supreme Court rejected its appeal on 26 March, the daily "Pravo" reported. Slouf was a powerful adviser to Prime Minister Milos Zeman and a lightning rod for media criticism of many backroom deals negotiated under Zeman's 1998-2002 government. A Prague court ruled in April 2002 that the weekly printed "false, unverified, and biased information" about Slouf in September and October 2000, when it ran a series of articles suggesting that U.S. diplomatic and security concerns about Slouf led to the cancellation of a U.S. visit by Zeman. AH

SLOVAK PRESIDENT SIGNS INTELLIGENCE BILL INTO LAW
President Rudolf Schuster signed eight bills into law on 26 March, including much-discussed legislation governing civilian- and military-intelligence agencies, TASR reported. Employees of the Slovak Information Service (SIS) and the Military Intelligence (VOS) will be prohibited from employing or posing as journalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004). AH

HUNGARY PRESSES EU TO OPEN LABOR MARKETS
On the eve of an EU summit in Brussels, Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy on 25 March urged member states of the European Union to lift restrictions on access to their labor markets for Hungarian job seekers, Hungarian media reported. In a letter to European Commission President Romano Prodi, Medgyessy called on member states to apply the conditions agreed in the EU accession treaty when setting terms for the acceptance of foreign workers, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Opposition FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban pressed the same point at a meeting of European People's Party leaders in Brussels. Meanwhile in Budapest, Hungarian President Ferenc Madl told his visiting Italian counterpart Carlo Azeglio Ciampi that regulations restricting the free flow of Hungarian labor in EU should be terminated as soon as possible, Hungarian television reported on 25 March. MSZ

KOSOVAR POLITICAL LEADER REJECTS ANY SERBIAN MILITARY PRESENCE...
Ramush Haradinaj, who heads the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) and was a commander in the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), told Vienna's "Die Presse" of 25 March the ethnic Albanian majority rules out any return of Serbian forces to Kosova, as some Serbian leaders have suggested (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October and 19 December 2003). Haradinaj stressed that Kosova is still suffering from the consequences of what Serbian forces did there in 1998-99. He hailed the work of NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers, adding, however, that the mandate of the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) "must be redefined." The former guerrilla leader stressed that the recent unrest was the result of frustration by "thousands of Kosovars" in the face of high unemployment rates and calls by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to partition Kosova by setting up ethnically based cantons. Haradinaj denied that the violence was organized, adding, however, that unspecified criminal elements took advantage of the situation. He pledged to repair the Serbian homes and churches that were damaged in the unrest. Haradinaj warned of the threat to democracy posed by Serbian nationalism among local Serbs and by illegal Serbian parallel governmental structures in the province, adding, however, that he is committed to building democracy. PM

...AS A PUBLISHER CALLS FOR STOCKTAKING...
Veton Surroi, who publishes the Prishtina daily "Koha Ditore," told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of 25 March that the recent unrest was not centrally orchestrated "by somebody sitting in an office with a telephone" or by some unnamed "dubious" media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22, 23, and 24 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 and 26 March 2004). Instead, he argued, the violence was exploited by local troublemakers across the province who took advantage of a restless mood among much of the population. Surroi, who has sharply condemned the attacks, said that "few tears will be shed" among Kosovars in response to the violence against UNMIK. He added, however, that he is disturbed by the attacks on KFOR, which most ethnic Albanians regard as their liberator from Serbian rule and their protector. The Frankfurt-based daily quoted an unnamed Prishtina-based Western diplomat as calling the violence a "dress rehearsal" for yet more unrest in the future. Elsewhere, EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana called on all Kosovar Albanian parties to purge extremists from their ranks, Reuters reported. PM

...RUSSIA CONTINUES TOUGH TALK...
An unidentified Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Moscow on 25 March that "the toughest measures [in] the fight with [ethnic Albanian] extremists should be taken, their organizational structures...liquidated, their disarmament [completed], and instigators and participants in anti-Serbian massacres...detained and punished," ITAR-TASS reported. "It is necessary to make the Albanian leaders of Kosovo strictly fulfill requirements of the UN Security Council" set down in 1999 in Resolution 1244, the diplomat added. He also called for the quick return of Serbs who fled during the recent violence and the repair of their homes and religious buildings. The text is the latest in a series of daily statements by Russian officials and media outlets aimed at projecting a mood of indignation, emphasizing that Moscow wants a central role in regional affairs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2004). Some observers have suggested that Moscow and Belgrade are seeking to exploit the recent violence in Kosova for maximum political advantage, even if neither is able to do much in practical terms. Moscow has meanwhile launched a well-publicized humanitarian relief project to aid Kosova's Serbs. PM

...AND THE EU AND UN WRING HANDS
The European Council circulated a draft statement in Brussels on 25 March calling on all leaders in Kosova, "especially the Kosovo Albanian leadership, to take responsibility for the situation and to ensure such acts and threats of violence are not repeated," Reuters reported. The EU statement called on Kosova's elected officials "to allocate resources and take responsibility for urgent reconstruction of damaged property, including places of worship, to ensure the earliest possible return of internally displaced persons." In Svinjare, Kosova, UN regional administrator David Mitchel said Kosova's Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi should make good on his promise to provide $6 million for reconstruction. "The government has indicated they could supply the money," Mitchel said. "Put your money where your mouth is. If the government [does] not come up with the money quickly, we understand what message they are giving." On 26 March, the "Los Angeles Times" noted that the rioters across the province included Albanians and Serbs alike, concentrating much of their violence against the unloved UNMIK. The daily called on the United States to take the lead in pursuing a settlement aiming at independence for Kosova with autonomy for local Serbs, ruling out any role for Serbian forces or an ethnically based partitioning. PM

SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO'S TOP SOCCER OFFICIAL SHOT
Branko Bulatovic, who heads Serbia and Montenegro's Football Association, is in a coma and undergoing surgery in a Belgrade hospital on 26 March following a shooting in his office by an unidentified gunman, Reuters reported. A hospital spokesman said that the injury is serious and the outcome of the operation difficult to predict. PM

MACEDONIAN RAILROAD WORKERS RENEW NATIONWIDE STRIKE
Macedonia's independent unions of railroad workers decided on 24 March to again block all domestic and international railroad connections, "Utrinski vesnik" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2003 and 9 March 2004). The unions demand that each worker who will be laid off on 1 April be paid a settlement worth about $8,400. The nationwide strike was launched on 8 March but interrupted during the talks between the unions and the management of the state-owned railroad company. Stojan Naumov, the company's general manager, called the renewal of the blockade "illegitimate." Naumov warned that his company faces a drastic reduction in revenue because several foreign transportation companies have announced that they will avoid Macedonia as a transit country between the western Balkans and the Aegean. UB

ROMANIA, MOLDOVA STEP UP SECURITY COOPERATION
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and visiting Romanian Information Service Director Radu Timofte on 25 March discussed ways to improve bilateral cooperation in combating international terrorism and the trafficking of arms, drugs, and humans, Flux reported, citing a press release issued by Voronin's office. Timofte delivered a message from Romanian President Ion Iliescu expressing Romania's intention to intensify relations between the country's respective intelligence services and to improve bilateral relations in general. Voronin responded by saying Chisinau is also interested in improving cooperation with Bucharest. Timofte also met with Moldovan Information and Security Service Director Ion Ursu. Earlier this month, Romanian Foreign Information Service Director Gheorghe Fulga visited Chisinau, and Voronin's adviser Sergiu Mocanu paid an official visit to Bucharest. ZsM

IMF MISSION CRITICAL OF MOLDOVA'S ECONOMIC POLICIES
An IMF delegation that visited Chisinau from 17-24 March has expressed its concern over the worsening business environment in Moldova, Flux reported on 23 March. At a 23 March press conference, delegation chief Marta Castello-Branco said that "structural reforms are being implemented slowly," and suggested that the government improve the business environment and reduce intervention in the economy. She also said some of Chisinau's policies, such as its introduction of export restrictions and creation of artificial monopolies, are in contradiction to the government's Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy. The delegation did not discuss conditions for negotiating a new IMF loan program for Moldova. ZsM

OSCE CONFIRMS DEPARTURE OF NEW TRAINLOAD OF RUSSIAN ARMAMENTS FROM TRANSDNIESTER
Claus Neukirch, spokesman of the OSCE's mission in Moldova, on 25 March said the first trainload of Russian armaments to be evacuated from Transdniester this year departed the same day from Cobasna, Flux reported. Neukirch said the OSCE will inspect the train upon its arrival in Russia, as Transdniester authorities did not allow OSCE representatives to monitor the loading of the train. OSCE mission chief William Hill on 23 March said the organization can no longer guarantee the transparency of the evacuation, as Transdniester authorities will not allow access to OSCE representatives to the Russian arms caches, although the OSCE has been granted access by Russia. He said Tiraspol is thus violating the 1993 accord on the functioning of the OSCE mission in Moldova, which was signed by Tiraspol leader Igor Smirnov. ZsM

BULGARIAN PARLIAMENT ADOPTS JUDICIAL REFORM
Parliament adopted on final reading on 25 March a number of amendments to the law on the judiciary pertaining to the election, the mandates, and the immunity of judges, prosecutors, and magistrates, mediapool.bg reported. The legal changes were part of the parliament's efforts to harmonize the Bulgarian legislation with EU requirements and to close the Justice and Home Affairs chapter of the EU's acquis communautaire (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2004). However, most of the changes were adopted without the necessary quorum of 121 lawmakers, the news agency reported, and are thus subject to possible challenges before the Constitutional Court. UB

BULGARIA SEEKS TO ESTABLISH NEW SERVICE TO CRACK DOWN ON TAX EVADERS
The government on 25 March approved a bill that would create a National Service for Fiscal Investigations (NSFR) overseen by the Finance Ministry, vsekiden.com reported. The new service would have the right to use undercover agents with judicial approval (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2004). The government also approved draft amendments to the Penal Code increasing fines and sentences for tax evaders. Meanwhile, General Boyko Borisov, who coordinates the country's police services, denied media reports that the Interior Ministry has prepared a list of leading organized crime figures who will be charged with tax offences. UB

PARLIAMENTARY BALLOT SET TO SEAL NEW GEORGIAN LEADERSHIP'S PREEMINENCE
On 28 March, Georgian voters will go to the polls for the third time within five months, this time to elect 150 parliament deputies under the party-list system. The ballot will mark the culmination of a transfer of power triggered by popular protests -- exploited by leading opposition politicians -- against the rigging of the outcome of the 2 November parliamentary poll to engineer a parliamentary majority for the For a New Georgia bloc that supported then-President Eduard Shevardnadze. Following Shevardnadze's forced resignation on 23 November, opposition National Movement leader Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president in a landslide victory on 4 January with 96 percent of the vote.

The National Movement is now poised to sweep the board in the parliamentary ballot. But the wave of popular exultation that ensured Saakashvili's January triumph has somewhat abated. And differences have emerged between the three members of the troika that led the protests that culminated in Shevardnadze's ouster. Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, who in line with the Georgian Constitution served as acting president after Shevardnadze stepped down, has implied that Saakashvili reneged on an informal agreement that his National Movement and the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc co-headed by Burdjanadze and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania should be equally represented on the joint list of candidates. Burdjanadze's supporters, however, account for only some 20 percent of the 130 names on that list, and only two of the top 10 candidates.

Moreover, Saakashvili and Zhvania both turned down a proposal by the Council of Europe to convene an emergency session of the outgoing parliament to amend the election law by lowering from 7 percent to 4 or 5 percent the threshold for parliamentary representation under the proportional system. Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili had said on 15 January he favors such a reduction, Caucasus Press reported. The leadership's refusal impelled a visiting Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation to express concern that "with the current 7 percent threshold to enter parliament, combined with a fragmented opposition, there is a real risk that the upcoming elections will result in a one-party parliament." The same delegation also deplored the new leadership's reluctance to amend the composition of election commissions at all levels to exclude bias, after which Saakashvili decreed that opposition parties should have two addition representatives on district-level election commissions, giving them a total of nine of the 15 seats.

Most observers attribute the Georgian leadership's reluctance to lower the election threshold for parliamentary representation to a desire to prevent the Union for Democratic Revival (DAK) headed by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze from winning significant representation in the new legislature. The DAK was the second-largest faction in the parliament elected in 1999, with 58 deputies. Given that the results of the 2 November voting in the 75 single-candidate constituencies were not annulled, the DAK is among several opposition parties or blocs that will be represented in the new legislature at least by a handful of deputies. The DAK has six deputies; the Labor party, two; the New Rightists, three; and their bloc partner, Industry Will Save Georgia, two. Sixteen deputies were elected on the ticket of the now-defunct pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia.

A total of five blocs and 14 individual parties succeeded in registering to contest the 28 March ballot (compared with nine blocs and 12 individual parties last November). The Union of Citizens of Georgia -- the party Shevardnadze formed as his power base 10 years ago and which constituted the nucleus of For a New Georgia -- did not register for the ballot. Only a few parties or blocs can realistically expect to surmount the 7 percent barrier. The Labor party, which polled over 12 percent of the vote last November, hopes to win between 20-25 percent this time around, press secretary Gela Danelia told Caucasus Press on 17 March. An opinion poll conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra" in early March estimated support for Labor at 14.7 percent, while a second poll of some 6,600 respondents conducted at around the same time by the MGM research agency gave the National Movement-United Democrats 40.32 percent, but suggested that no other party would poll over 7 percent. That latter poll gave the Industrialists-New Rightists alliance 5 percent support; the DAK 4.7 percent; the Liberty party headed by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, son of deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, 3.3 percent; and the Labor Party, 2.9 percent.

While no one doubts that deputies from the National Movement/Democrats combined list will constitute an overall majority in the new parliament, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will garner the two-thirds majority needed to amend the country's constitution; for example, to abolish the presidency, as Saakashvili told journalists in Bratislava last week he ultimately intends to do.

The other remaining open question is how voting will proceed in Adjaria, where Abashidze is fighting to retain the political and economic control of which Saakashvili is determined to divest him. Abashidze, who heads the DAK list, has pledged not to hinder the vote. But Georgian newspapers report that activists from the Adjar opposition movement Our Adjara are being systematically harassed, to the point that normal electioneering is impossible. And on 24 March, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Gogi Khaindrava admitted that voting could not take place in Adjaria if Abashidze refuses to lift the state of emergency he imposed on 14 March.

SOURCE SAYS AFGHAN LEADER PLANS TO POSTPONE ELECTIONS
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai told a group of foreign ambassadors on 24 March that he wants to postpone elections in the country until September, AFP reported on 25 March, citing an anonymous diplomatic source. "Karzai called a group of ambassadors together on Wednesday afternoon [24 March]," said the source. "In the course of this meeting, he said that it was his intention that elections would be held in September 2004." Diplomats from the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States attended the meeting, according to AFP. Presidential and parliamentary elections are slated for June. Election officials have encountered problems registering voters because of logistical difficulties and security concerns. The UN, which is overseeing the planned elections, estimates that just 1.57 million Afghans of the estimated 10.5 million eligible voters have registered. Women account for roughly 28 percent of the registered voters, numbering some 445,000. MR

THREE CONFESS TO KILLING AFGHAN AVIATION MINISTER
Afghan authorities said three men arrested in connection with the recent killing of Afghanistan's aviation minister in the western Afghan Herat Province have confessed to the attack, AP reported 25 March. Aviation and Tourism Minister Mirwais Sadeq died on 21 March under unclear circumstances after attackers fired on him with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Forces loyal to Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan, the slain minister's father, clashed with 17th Division troops under the command of General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah. Fighting abated on 22 March after Ismail Khan's forces overran Nayebzadah's stronghold, forcing him and his followers to flee. Local authorities arrested 21 of Nayebzadah's men following the battle, Herat deputy chief of security Abdul Wahid Tawakali said. He said one of the captured fighters acknowledged firing a grenade launcher, while two others said they took part in the attack using machine guns. Sadeq's killing was the third death of a senior official in Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai's government since its inception. MR

U.S. STARTS KHOST RECONSTRUCTION PROJECT
The U.S.-led coalition officially unveiled a new provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Khost Province, a hub of neo-Taliban guerrilla activities, AP reported on 25 March. "Combat has been necessary in the past to defeat the terrorist threat, which is our common enemy," Major General Lloyd Austin, the U.S. second-in-command in Afghanistan, told Afghan elders at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Khost. "But our concern now is the future. Our emphasis must remain on setting the conditions for reconstruction and development." The U.S. military's Khost PRT, the 12th of its kind in Afghanistan, reflects an increased effort to win friends in the tribal areas where neo-Taliban guerrillas and Al-Qaeda fighters are thought to operate. The reconstruction team will build wells, schools, clinics, and roads, Austin said. Guerrilla attacks against aid workers and military personnel have persisted in the region, where U.S.-led forces recently launched a new offensive against guerrillas. MR

AFGHANISTAN CALLS FOR INCREASED AID
Afghan officials have stepped up appeals for increased international aid ahead of a donors' conference scheduled for later this month in Berlin, AFP reported on 26 March. Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai said higher levels of aid in the near term "will save hundreds of millions and then billions of dollars tomorrow." Ashraf Ghani said Afghanistan urgently needs donor funds to prevent the country from sliding into the "type of chaos, misrule, and conflict which made our lives miserable and cost us two generations." He added, "Investment now will have a pay-off and a dividend that will not be possible in the future because circumstances change." Afghan officials say the government needs $27 billion-$28 billion in aid over the next seven years in order to raise per capita annual income from less than $200 to $500 by 2015. "The needs of Afghanistan are much greater than anticipated," said Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. MR

NUCLEAR INSPECTORS HEADED TO IRAN
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said on 24 March that a team of inspectors from the agency will arrive in Iran on 27 March, RFE/RL reported. Fleming said the inspectors will visit the Natanz gas-enrichment centrifuge facility and the Isfahan nuclear research center. The inspectors' visit was scheduled for 12 March, and "a number of Western diplomats" cited by Reuters on 24 March believe Tehran delayed the visit so it could hide undeclared activities. On the same day, IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei said he will travel to Iran early next month to meet with local officials, and he said "complete and transparent cooperation" is needed from Iran, RFE/RL reported. el-Baradei added, "As for Iran, there is a lot of work that we have to do because the Iranian [nuclear] program is more complicated [than Libya's] and there was a difficult delay at first in Iran's work. But I think that the situation returned to normal with Iran's cooperation." BS

RUSSIAN OFFICIAL EXPLAINS DELAYS AT BUSHEHR
Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency deputy chief Vladimir Asmolov said on 24 March that commissioning the nuclear-power plant at Bushehr was delayed because much of the pre-existing equipment was not fit for use, RIA-Novosti reported. He said just 10 percent of the equipment installed by Germany's Siemens could be used, adding that most of the Siemens equipment has been replaced and the rest is on order. Asmolov said the equipment checks took 2 1/2 years. BS

JAPANESE BANKS CONSIDER BILLION-DOLLAR LOAN TO IRANIAN OIL COMPANY
A syndicate that includes Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Mizuho Financial Group, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, and UFJ Holdings is considering a $1.2 billion loan to a subsidiary of the state-run National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), Nikkei Telecom 21 news service reported on 24 March and "Oil and Gas Journal Online" reported on 25 March. Loan payments would be made from the money NIOC made by selling crude oil to Japanese companies, and the Japanese companies would pay the banks directly, thus bypassing NIOC. Securing this financing is important to the success of the Azadegan oil-field-development deal, which was signed on 18 February and is worth $2.8 billion (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 March 2004). BS

IRANIAN LEGISLATOR STRESSES NEED FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
Tehran parliamentary representative Fatimeh Rakei expressed the hope on 25 March that state institutions will heed the supreme leader's call for greater accountability, ISNA reported. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in his 20 March Norouz message that the new year -- 1383 -- will be the "year of accountability" for the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004). Rakei said Khamenei's calls for accountability were ignored before and some agencies contented themselves with describing real and imagined accomplishments. "The authorities are responsible for putting into practice the ideas envisaged by the leader," Rakei said. "And government organs must provide the leader and the nation with transparent and clear reports." Rakei stressed the importance of the legislature in this process, saying, "The government bodies, especially the parliament, must directly supervise the authorities in their efforts to realize the leader's vision." BS

TEHRAN STRIVES TO CONTROL BORDER WITH IRAQ
Colonel Manuchehr Cheraghi, the deputy chief of police in Ilam Province, on 25 March described the arrest in the last week of 5,000 people who have tried to cross the border with Iraq illegally, IRNA reported. Cheraghi said pilgrimages to the holy sites in Iraq may only take place through officially sanctioned convoys, while the people who were arrested were trying to make the trip "by going through hard terrain and mountain passes with the help of local guides." Cheraghi warned that the area around the Mehran border crossing is very dangerous because of land mines and unexploded ordnance from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and also because of the long distances and harsh terrain. Traveling with the convoys is not always safe, either. A 21-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy who were with the Wayfarers of Light convoy to former battlefields were killed by a land-mine explosion on 22 March and were buried on 25 March, Fars News Agency reported. BS

U.S. OFFICIALS REPORTEDLY HAVE LEGAL JUSTIFICATION FOR KEEPING FORCES IN IRAQ
U.S. officials have reportedly found a legal basis to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after the 30 June transfer of power, nytimes.com reported on 26 March. Officials say that UN Security Council Resolution 1511 (http://www.un.org/Docs/sc/unsc_resolutions03.html), passed on 16 October and approving the multinational force in Iraq, provides U.S. military commanders with the authority to maintain control until a new Iraqi government is elected, which is expected to be around 31 December 2005. The newspaper reported that Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator L. Paul Bremer showed his confidence in this approach by issuing an executive order this week calling for the Iraqi armed forces to be placed under the operational control of Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commanding general of the U.S. Army's V Corps, who has already been named to lead allied forces in Iraq after the 30 June transfer of power. The plan would require that the UN Security Council renew Resolution 1511 before it expires in October. Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi said on 25 March that he supports the placement of the Iraqi Army under U.S. control, the newspaper reported. Iraqi Interior Minister Nuri Badran said this week that his ministry is not ready to handle internal security in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2004). KR

CPA ADMINISTRATOR TO APPOINT IRAQI NATIONAL-SECURITY ADVISER
An unidentified senior coalition official told a Baghdad press briefing on 25 March that Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator L. Paul Bremer will appoint an Iraqi national security adviser to a five-year term before the 30 June transfer of power, Reuters reported on 25 March. The official said the adviser will serve in a capacity similar to that of U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice or Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser in the administrations of former President George Bush and Gerald Ford. The official added that the government will be expected to retain the appointee even after an elected Iraqi government takes power next year. However, the official conceded that a future Iraqi government will have the power to remove the person from the position. Bremer announced on 24 March that he will establish a national-security committee and a defense ministry this week. KR

KURDISH OFFICIAL SAYS PESHMERGA MILITIAS WILL BE DISBANDED BY 30 JUNE
Umar Aziz, deputy director of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's (PUK) external-relations office, told London's "Al-Hayat" that the Kurdish peshmerga forces affiliated with the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) will either withdraw from Baghdad or be merged with the interior- or defense-ministry forces at the end of June when the U.S. transfers power back to the Iraqi people. "The Washington Post" reported on 22 March that Kurdish and Shi'ite officials have reached a tentative agreement with the United States to disband their militias. Militia members will be offered the opportunity to join any of the new Iraqi security organizations or claim substantial retirement benefits as incentives to lay down their arms and disband (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004). Aziz told "Al-Hayat" that the peshmerga forces trust the U.S. troops and said the merger of a group of PUK peshmerga means that the peshmerga "no longer takes its orders from the PUK leadership, and instead is under the army's command." KR

IRAQI ENVIRONMENT MINISTER SEEKS JAPANESE SUPPORT
Iraqi Environment Minister Abd al-Rahman Siddiq Karim called for Japanese environmental assistance during a meeting in Tokyo with his Japanese counterpart Yuriko Koike, Jiji Press reported on 26 March. Karim said Iraq needs assistance in monitoring air and water quality. He also asked for Japan's help in environmental testing and experimentation, as well as in designing public environmental-education programs. Karim also stressed the need for assistance in regenerating the Iraqi marshlands. KR

UN SECRETARY-GENERAL SEEKS SECURITY COUNCIL SUPPORT FOR OIL-FOR-FOOD PROBE
Kofi Annan on 25 March asked members of the UN Security Council to support an independent inquiry into allegations of corruption in connection with the now-defunct program, the UN News Center reported the same day. Annan's spokesman Fred Eckhard said earlier this week that Annan will need Security Council support, since the success of the investigation can only be achieved with the full cooperation of governments and companies (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 26 March 2004). International media have widely reported allegations of corruption, including charges that bribery, smuggling, and payoffs took place under the program. The UN Security Council's president for March, French Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, welcomed and supported Annan's probe, Reuters reported on 25 March, but diplomats reportedly said a UN resolution requiring member states to assist in the investigation will likely fail. KR

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