DUMA GIVES NOD TO CURB ON PUBLIC MEETINGS...
The State Duma approved in its first reading on 31 March a government-sponsored bill that would restrict the right to hold protest demonstrations, Russian media reported. The vote was 294 in favor, with 137 against and one abstention, according to lenta.ru. According to Interfax, the bill would ban the holding of protests near major roads, administrative buildings, and diplomatic offices. Meeting organizers also must inform local authorities at least 10 days before holding an event. The authorities would have the right to suggest alternative locations for an event, but would have to do so at least five days before it is scheduled to be held. In addition, the bill prohibits foreigners and people younger than 18 years old from organizing demonstrations. JAC
...DESPITE PROTESTS FROM YABLOKO, HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS
The Yabloko party held an unsanctioned demonstration outside the State Duma during its debate on the demonstrations bill, and Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin was arrested, taken to court, and fined, according to NTV. Memorial head Oleg Orlov told Interfax that the bill is a "step toward authoritarianism." Lev Ponomarev, who was arrested during a recent rally to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's deportation of the Chechens, said "if the bill is adopted in its current form, bureaucrats will have the right to ban practically any mass protests except for small pickets far from the official residences of the authorities." According to "Vremya novostei" on 31 March, questions relating to the holding of demonstrations are still regulated by a June 1988 decree of the USSR Supreme Soviet. The daily noted that the miners' strike that was held on Gorbatskii Bridge near the White House in Moscow for three months in 1998 could not be held if the bill becomes law. According to TV-Tsentr on 31 March, Duma Security Committee Chairman Vladimir Vasilev (Unified Russia) said that television will bring demonstrations to the public even if they are held in remote locations. JAC
MINISTER SAYS RUBLE WILL BE CONVERTIBLE BY 2007...
Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, speaking at a business forum in Frankfurt on 31 March, said that the government has decided to lift all restrictions on hard-currency operations as of January 2007, dpa and Russian media reported on 1 April. At present all hard-currency transactions must be approved by the Central Bank, and Russian companies must sell 50 percent of their hard-currency revenues to the Central Bank. This policy has boosted the country's hard-currency reserves from less than $7 billion in 1999 to more than $86 billion last year. "We must integrate Russia into the global economy as quickly as possible," Gref said, noting that Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov supports this policy. Gref also said that GDP growth should reach 10 percent this year, up from 8.5 percent last year, RosBalt reported. He said that ruble stabilization has led to increased investment, meaning that the economy is becoming more modernized and efficient. He added that the government will soon introduce new measures to boost the Russian stock market, including one to reduce the cost of issuing securities, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 March. RC
...AND EXPRESSES COMPLETE SUPPORT FOR PUTIN
In an interview published in the German newspaper "Handelsblatt" on 1 April, Economic Development and Trade Minister Gref said that President Vladimir Putin "has a clear idea of what must be done over the next four years" and that Putin's stated goals of cutting poverty in half in three years and doubling GDP in 10 years are achievable. "Everything in the country must be oriented toward the people," Gref said. "At present, the system works against the individual." Commenting on Putin's recent landslide re-election, Gref said: "Having the support of 70 percent of the electorate, Putin can do whatever he wants, but he is using this power in order to do everything possible to develop normal institutions of democracy in Russia." RC
PREMIER PLEDGES TO TAME THE BUREAUCRACY
Prime Minister Fradkov, speaking at a cabinet session on 1 April, said that the government will undertake serious efforts to reduce the bureaucracy, eliminate needless state functions, and cut back the number of government agencies, newsru.com and Interfax reported. Fradkov rejected accusations that the recent government reorganization was nothing more than moving the same people from one place to another. He predicted that the new structure would soon yield "evident results from the point of view of the quality of its work." Fradkov also said the government's work must be "comprehensible and transparent so that officials at all levels will fully understand their accountability for preparing and implementing decisions." "Izvestiya" reported on 1 April that a plan for reducing the bureaucracy should be drafted by the end of this week. Most of the necessary orders have already been prepared, the daily wrote. RC
PROSECUTORS PREVIEW INDICTMENT AGAINST MENATEP HEAD
The Prosecutor-General's Office on 1 April released its preliminary indictment against Menatep CEO and Yukos shareholder Platon Lebedev, who has been in pretrial detention since 2 July, Russian media reported. According to the document, which is posted on the agency's website (http://genproc.gov.ru), Lebedev is charged with participating in a criminal conspiracy headed by jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii "aimed at obtaining through deceit shares in Russian enterprises during the privatization period." Lebedev is named as a co-leader of the conspiracy, and specifically charged with using his Menatep post to issue bank guarantees to fictitious companies, which used them to acquire shares in privatized enterprises. The document alleges that Khodorkovskii and Lebedev created numerous such fictitious firms and ran their finances through banks under Lebedev's control. RC
LIBERAL PARTY BOASTS MEMBERSHIP SURGE
Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii told Ekho Moskvy on 31 March that his party's membership has grown from 70,000 to 85,000 since the end of December. Moreover, he said that even though the party is not represented in the Duma, it will continue to draft and present legislation through sympathetic deputies. "We have preserved all of our activities," Yavlinskii said, noting recent party successes in local elections in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. He added that Yabloko continues to work closely with human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, who recently resigned from the party in connection with his appointment as ombudsman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). RC
NATIONALITIES EXPERTS SEE RISE IN INTERETHNIC TENSIONS...
In an interview published in "Trud" on 31 March, former Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov said that "the ethnic question has returned" to Russia and has "given rise to ethnic extremism of various kinds from national separatism and national chauvinism to terrorism." "There is only one step from nationalism to Nazism, when the superiority of one person is strengthened by means of the national humiliation of another," Abdulatipov continued. "Nobody is taking this issue seriously at the state level." Abdulatipov, who is now the chairman of the Assembly of Russian Nationalities, said that the assembly believes that it is necessary to introduce norms and mechanisms for the adequate representation of ethnic minorities in federal and regional state bodies. In addition, the assembly is calling for the creation of the post of presidential envoy for the rights of ethnic minorities. JAC
...AND AN INSUFFICIENT RESPONSE FROM THE GOVERNMENT
In an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 25 March, Emil Pain, director of the Xenophobia and Extremism Studies Department of the Institute of Sociology, said that the current "ethno-political situation [in Russia] is not very stable." He suggests that over time "open manifestations of ethnic separatism have decreased, but manifestations of ethnic terrorism increased at the same time." He explained that leaders of nationalist groups left the political stage, while skinhead movements have grown more noticeable. According to Pain, politicians both during the reign of former President Boris Yeltsin and now respond only to the loudest groups. Yeltsin offered ethnic minorities more sovereignty, "not because he loved them so much, but because they were very active and it was necessary to please them." Putin is pursuing a different policy of limiting the power of the "nationalists" in the regions, Pain argues, while the Duma is seeking to "protect the majority" with its proposed bill on the Russian nation, among other things. Pain also suggested that current social problems are being "ethnicized." The oligarchs are seen as bad not only because they are oligarchs, but also because they are ethnically "alien," Pain said. JAC
INDUSTRY WILL NOT BE HARMED BY NATO EXPANSION, OFFICIAL SAYS
Russian companies should not be seriously affected by the entry of the Baltic states and four other European countries into NATO, Federal Industry Agency Director Boris Aleshin said on 30 March, ITAR-TASS reported. He noted that Russian firms have been helping these countries upgrade Russian-made equipment to NATO standards for some time. "We have always offered our projects to these countries and often win contracts," Aleshin said. RC
ATTORNEY FOR ACCUSED SPY SAYS JUDGE IS BIASED
The Moscow Municipal Court rejected on 30 March an appeal from accused spy and political scientist Igor Sutyagin arguing that trial judge Marina Komarova is biased toward the prosecution, regions.ru reported on 31 March. Sutyagin's case is being heard by a jury in closed proceedings. Sutyagin's lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, was not allowed on 30 March to present testimony from two expert witnesses. According to Stavitskaya, the issue of allowing the testimony should not have even required discussion. Sutyagin's attorneys believe that any evidence that contradicts the prosecution's case is being excluded without legal basis, newsru.com reported on 30 March. Sutyagin was arrested in October 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 November 1999), and a Kaluga Oblast court sent his case back for further investigation in December 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2001). The new trial started on 15 March. JAC
NATIONAL BOLSHEVIKS GREET U.S. AMBASSADOR
Seven young members of the National Bolshevik Party chained themselves to the window bars at the entrance to a theater hosting a U.S.-Russia business forum on 31 March in Yekaterinburg, RIA-Novosti reported. The protesters also chanted slogans, such as "Down with Bush" and "Down with McDonald's" and threw leaflets. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow was attending the event. Afterward, Vershbow told reporters that Russia must do more to stop the sale of counterfeit audio and video products before it can enter the WTO, Uralinformburo reported. According to Vershbow, some 60 percent of the compact discs sold in Russia are counterfeits, as are 90 percent of the DVDs. Later that day, Vershbow attended a jazz concert, where he wowed the local audience with his "virtuoso" rendition of a jazz composition, the agency reported. JAC
DISPLACED PERSONS CAMPS IN INGUSHETIA TO CLOSE
Igor Yunash, first deputy head of the Interior Ministry's Federal Migration Service, said on 30 March that the two remaining camps in Ingushetia for displaced persons who fled the war in neighboring Chechnya could be closed by the end of April, providing housing is built in Chechnya for their inhabitants, Interfax reported on 31 March (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 12 March 2004). He said the Satsita camp, which houses some 450 families, could be closed by 1 April, and the Sputnik camp, which houses 119 families, by 30 April. He added that those displaced persons who do not wish to return to Chechnya should be offered alternative accommodation in Ingushetia. Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov denied on 29 March that Chechen fugitives are being pressured to leave Ingushetia, Interfax reported. But Chechen government official Mompash Machuev told Interfax on 26 March that only those displaced persons who returned from Ingushetia to Chechnya before 31 March would be eligible for financial compensation of 1,000 rubles ($35) each. LF
RUSSIAN, GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTERS MEET
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists in Moscow on 31 March after talks with his visiting Georgian counterpart Gela Bezhuashvili that the Russian troops still deployed at two bases in Georgia will not intervene in any way in domestic political developments, Caucasus Press reported. Interfax quoted Ivanov as saying that "visible progress" has been made in recent months to resolve problems in bilateral relations. But at the same time he reaffirmed that the Russian bases in Georgia will not be withdrawn until alternative infrastructure is built in Russia. An unnamed Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told ITAR-TASS on 29 March that Moscow has not revised its previous estimate that closing those bases will take 11 years. Caucasus Press on 31 March reported that Ivanov and Bezhuashvili engaged in a three-hour private discussion before embarking on formal negotiations. LF
FEDERATION COUNCIL DEPLORES FOREIGN FUNDING FOR GEORGIAN GOVERNMENT
The Federation Council adopted a statement on 31 March condemning the creation by the U.S. government and the Soros Foundation of a special fund that will supplement Georgian government officials' salaries, Caucasus Press reported. The statement suggested that the primary motive for providing such aid is to increase the Georgian leadership's dependence on the United States and thus to minimize Russia's influence in the South Caucasus. It suggested that such financial support could ultimately lead to the loss of Georgia's independence. LF
ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADERS THREATENED WITH ARREST
The Armenian authorities warned late on 31 March that opposition party leaders could face arrest in the course of an investigation launched into their alleged plans to "seize state power by violence and change the constitutional order of the Republic of Armenia," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The Artarutiun opposition bloc and the National Unity Party headed by Artashes Geghamian plan to launch mass protests later this month in a bid to force the resignation of President Robert Kocharian, whose re-election in a controversial ballot in February-March 2003 they claim was illegal. Artarutiun leader Stepan Demirchian stressed on 31 March that the opposition has foresworn violence and seeks only to restore constitutional order, not to undermine it. LF
AZERBAIJANI PROSECUTOR CALLS FOR PRISON TERM FOR POPULAR IMAM
The prosecutor has called for Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the popular imam of Baku's Djuma Mosque, to be sentenced to 4 1/2 years' imprisonment for his alleged role in the clashes in Baku on 16 October in the wake of the previous day's disputed presidential election, www.zerkalo.az reported on 31 March (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 January 2004). Ibrahimoglu, who also heads the Center for the Defense of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Belief, was accompanying a group of OSCE election observers who witnessed, but did not participate in, the 16 October clashes between police and opposition supporters. In his closing statement he told the court that "I feel like a victim of the inquisition. I realize that if the opportunity presented itself, I would be burned at the stake... The charges against me are absolutely groundless." Azerbaijan's State Committee for Religious Affairs released a statement on 1 April stressing that it played no role in Ibrahimoglu's arrest or trial, Turan reported. At the same time, the statement pointed out that Ibrahimoglu's congregation is illegal insofar as it has failed to register with the committee, and that it occupied the Djuma Mosque illegally without first securing permission from the Culture Ministry, which is responsible for historic buildings. LF
AZERBAIJAN MARKS GENOCIDE DAY
In a 31 March address to mark Azerbaijani Genocide Day, President Ilham Aliyev accused Armenians of pursuing a policy of genocide against Azerbaijanis for the past two centuries with the aim of driving Azerbaijanis from their territory and incorporating it into a "Greater Armenia," Interfax reported. He said Azerbaijan is working to eliminate the consequences of "Armenian aggression," and that he is certain the Karabakh conflict will be resolved "in keeping with international legal norms." Genocide Day was first observed in 1998 at the behest of Ilham Aliyev's father and predecessor Heidar Aliyev, marking the date in 1918 when predominantly Armenian Bolshevik forces killed some 50,000 people in Baku. LF
GEORGIAN ELECTION COMMISSION REVISES UPWARD NUMBER OF VOTES CAST...
The Georgian Central Election Commission (CEC) counted ballots cast in the 28 March parliamentary election from a further 76 precincts on 31 March, after which it revised its estimate of the total number of votes cast from 1,505,881 to 1,532,521, www.rustavi2.com reported on 1 April. According to the latest tally, the National Movement-Democrats have 67.02 percent of the vote; the only other party to surmount the 7 percent minimum required to win parliamentary representation is the Industrialists-New Rightists bloc with 7.62 percent. Speaking to journalists in Tbilisi on 31 March, CEC Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili rejected claims by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze that the outcome of the ballot was falsified to keep his Union for Democratic Revival (DAK), which has 6.2 percent of the vote, outside parliament. Chiaberashvili said voters, rather than the Georgian authorities, are responsible for the DAK's election defeat. LF
...AS NGO CLAIMS VOTE RIGGED IN TWO DISTRICTS TO FAVOR RULING PARTY
The International Center for Civic Culture, one of several NGOs that deployed observers to monitor the 28 March election, claimed at a press conference in Tbilisi on 31 March that in the districts of Lagodekhi and Sighnaghi in eastern Georgia the outcome of the ballot was rigged to secure a victory for the ruling National Movement-Democrats, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 31 March, U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles met in Tbilisi with leading members of the Industrialists-New Rightists bloc who informed him of procedural violations witnessed by their representatives in the course of the ballot, Caucasus Press reported. LF
LEGALITY OF PROPOSED ADJAR REFERENDUM DISPUTED
Several Georgian officials claimed on 31 March that Adjar leader Abashidze does not have the right to hold a referendum to demonstrate the level of support garnered by the DAK in the 28 March ballot, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2004). Deputy State Security Minister Gigi Ugulava, Justice Minister Giorgi Papuashvili, and CEC Chairman Chiaberashvili all said the Georgian Constitution does not envisage holding a referendum only in one part of the country. Chiaberashvili advised Abashidze to conduct an opinion poll instead to determine the level of support for the DAK, implying that Abashidze himself tried to rig the ballot and has no right to question the accuracy of the results, Caucasus Press reported. LF
FORMER GEORGIAN PRESIDENT HONORED
A religious service was conducted on 31 March at Tbilisi's Sioni Cathedral to mark the 65th anniversary of the birth of deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who died in still-unclear circumstances in late December 1993, Caucasus Press reported. A commemoration organized by Gamsakhurdia's widow, Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia, took place later the same day at the state opera. On 29 March, the Union of Writers of Georgia proposed posthumously restoring Gamsakhurdia to membership, from which he was expelled in 1977 because of his dissident activities, Caucasus Press reported. LF
GEORGIAN RAILWAY CHIEF RELEASED ON BAIL
Former Georgian Railways Director Akaki Chkhaidze, who was arrested in January on suspicion of tax evasion and abuse of his official position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004), was released on bail on 31 March after providing a written pledge not to leave Tbilisi, Georgian media reported. Chkhaidze, a close associate of former President Eduard Shevardnadze, has reportedly paid 3 million laris ($1.49 million) to the state budget. LF
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT CALLS FOR NEW LEGISLATION...
Askar Akaev addressed a joint session of the Kyrgyz parliament on 31 March, asking legislators to make every effort to pass new legislation to bring Kyrgyzstan's laws into line with the country's constitution, akipress.org reported the same day. The president urged lawmakers to focus on laws that are crucial to the country's economic development. Akaev singled out the following types of legislation: laws to ensure economic growth and strengthen the banking system; laws to foster sound management principles and foster the development of the political system; and laws to provide help and protection for underprivileged and vulnerable segments of the population. DK
...AND SIGNS BILLS INTO LAW
President Akaev's press service announced on 31 March that the president signed a number of important bills into law on 28 March, akipress.org reported on 31 March. Akaev signed bills amending the Criminal Code, establishing narcotics controls, and changing laws on notaries. The changes to the Criminal Code were necessitated by the new drug law, which establishes the legal status and functions of the state's antinarcotics agency. The changes to notary legislation concern the licensing and operations of private-sector notaries. DK
AT LEAST 30 DETAINED IN UZBEK ATTACKS...
Uzbek police arrested dozens of people on 31 March after three days of violent incidents amid unconfirmed reports of further attacks in the country, "The New York Times" reported on 31 March. Alison Gill, a representative of Human Rights Watch, told the newspaper by telephone from Tashkent that arrests were targeting "devout Muslims." ITAR-TASS reported that Uzbek authorities have made at least 30 arrests in connection with the attacks. According to a report on lenta.ru, the 30 individuals arrested were Muslim extremists. "Kommersant-Daily" cited human rights activists on 31 March as saying that up to 200 people have been arrested in recent days. But "Vremya novostei" cited Western diplomats in Tashkent as saying that Uzbek authorities are trying to exercise restraint, and the current arrests are not as widespread as those that followed a 16 February 1999 bombing. DK
...AS HOSTAGE DRAMA ENDS IN SUICIDE...
A purported hostage taking on 31 March ended with an explosion that killed an alleged militant, AP reported the same day. Reports varied on the number of hostages seized, but the situation apparently ended with the alleged militant barricaded in an apartment with two hostages and surrounded by police. The alleged hostage taker was then killed in an explosion that also injured two policemen but left the hostages unharmed, Interfax reported on 1 April. DK
...AND U.S. OFFERS HELP
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodiq Safaev by telephone on 30 March that the United States is willing to assist Uzbekistan in the latter's counterterrorism efforts, Bloomberg news agency reported on 31 March. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher revealed the offer to journalists at a 30 March briefing. Boucher also told reporters that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been "the dominant threat [in Uzbekistan] in the past." The United States maintains a military base with approximately 1,000 personnel at Khanabad in southern Uzbekistan. DK
BELARUS'S SWITCH TO RUSSIAN RUBLE IN 2005 DEEMED UNLIKELY
Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said on 31 March that Belarus is unlikely to adopt the Russian ruble as its official currency in 2005, as envisaged by a treaty on the Russia-Belarus Union of 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 1999), Belapan reported. Kudryn told journalists that Belarusian government officials at a meeting last week asked him not to raise the issue. "I can conclude that the Belarusian government will not consider the issue in the near future, and thus there is no time left to prepare for the adoption of the ruble on 1 January 2005," he said. Kudryn added that it is still possible to discuss the introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus in 2006. JM
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SAYS OPPOSITION THREATENS PUBLIC SAFETY
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on 31 March that his recent directive "On Measures to Enhance Public Safety and Discipline" met with support from most Belarusians, aside from drunkards, crooks, undisciplined workers, and the opposition, Belapan reported, quoting the presidential press service. Lukashenka reportedly said the opposition is guided by the principle, "The worse for the people and the government, the better for the opposition." The president charged that the opposition seeks sociopolitical destabilization in the country and poses a threat to public safety. JM
POLISH PRESIDENT EXPLAINS HALT OF CONTROVERSIAL TENDER TO UKRAINIANS
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in Kyiv on 31 March that a tender to select an investor for the Huta Czestochowa steel mill has been halted in connection with a government examination of Polish privatization to date, PAP reported. Kwasniewski added that a report on the examination will be completed in a few days. "Then it will be possible to make a decision whether to annul the tender and announce a new one or whether there will be a different solution," the Polish president said. Ukraine's Industrial Union of Donbas lost the tender to privatize Huta Czestochowa to the Indian-Dutch-British holding LMN and charged that the winner was selected based on political rather than economic considerations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004). Kwasniewski, who came to Kyiv to inaugurate the "Year of Poland in Ukraine" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2004), reportedly discussed border and visa policies, migration, the fight against organized crime and terrorism, and the Polish and Ukrainian peacekeepers in Iraq with his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma. Kwasniewski also met with Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the opposition Our Ukraine bloc. JM
SOROS MEETS WITH LEADING UKRAINIAN STATESMEN
U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros met in Kyiv on 31 March with Ukrainian President Kuchma, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, Ukrainian media reported. According to Ukrainian Television, Kuchma and Soros exchanged views on a broad range of geostrategic issues, including an enlarged Europe and Ukraine's European-integration prospects. They also reportedly discussed the development of open societies among former Soviet republics and freedom of speech. Meanwhile, the radical nationalist organization Brotherhood has accused Soros of financing "subversive acts by the opposition and its attempts to overthrow the government according to the Georgian scenario," Interfax reported. Brotherhood confirmed on 31 March that two of its activists threw packets of mayonnaise at Soros during a human rights forum in Kyiv earlier the same day. Ukrainian news agencies initially reported that Soros was splashed with water and glue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2004). JM
PACE RAPPORTEURS URGE LATVIA TO SIGN MINORITIES CONVENTION
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteurs Erik Jurgens and Kimmo Sasi, speaking to reporters at the end of their two-day visit on 30 March, urged Latvia to ratify the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, noting that it is the only EU candidate country not to have done so, BNS reported. EU members Belgium, France, Greece, and the Netherlands are also not signatories to the convention. The rapporteurs said that the new Latvian government is committed to a dialogue with minority schools, but education reform should not be delayed just because a law has been adopted. While in Latvia, Jurgens and Sasi discussed ethnic minorities, education, and naturalization issues with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and other officials. They are required to present a report about their visit by 27 April. SG
CONSTITUTIONAL COURT RULES LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT 'SEVERELY VIOLATED' CONSTITUTION
The Constitutional Court ruled on 31 March that President Rolandas Paksas "severely violated" the Lithuanian Constitution on three counts, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. The violations were: first, granting Lithuanian citizenship to Russian businessman Yurii Borisov for his financial support in the presidential campaign; second, not protecting state secrets and knowingly implying to Borisov that his telephone conversations were being monitored; and third, giving unlawful orders, via law enforcement agencies, to his adviser Visvaldas Rackauskas to pressure stockholders of the Zemaitijos keliai (Samogitian Roads) construction company to transfer their shares to the president's friends and partners. The court dismissed the charges that Paksas had ordered his advisers to collect information about private persons and had failed to prevent their illegal activities. The court also ruled that the president's negative public statements about the Ad Hoc Commission to Investigate the Potential Threat to National Security were "incorrect and inappropriate for a head of state," but did not violate the constitution. SG
POLISH CANDIDATE FOR PREMIER VOWS CONTINUITY IN FOREIGN POLICY, FISCAL REFORM
Marek Belka, the recently nominated candidate for prime minister, told journalists on 31 March that he would like to include the present Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz and National Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski in his future cabinet, Polish media reported. Belka stressed that Poland must continue its policies in significant international areas, including European integration and Polish military participation in Iraq. Although Belka did not mention Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner as a possible member of his cabinet, he suggested that he would proceed with fiscal reforms prepared by Hausner and dubbed by Polish media the "Hausner Plan" (see RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 27 March 2004). "The government that will be formed in May will implement the program concepts of [outgoing Prime Minister] Leszek Miller's government, including the implementation of particular components and the entirety of the program that is in general terms called Jerzy Hausner's program," Polish Radio quoted Belka as saying. JM
WILL THE COMMUNIST PARTY SAVE THE CZECH LANGUAGE?
A draft constitutional amendment to "protect the Czech language" passed an early hurdle on 31 March when the Chamber of Deputies narrowly approved the initiative in its first reading, CTK reported. The bill is sponsored by the unreformed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, who control just 41 seats in the 200-member lower house -- far short of the 120 seats needed to change the Czech Constitution. The amendment would oblige the state to "ensure the protection of the Czech language as an inseparable component of state and national identity" but also guarantee that the stipulation does not infringe on minority rights, CTK reported. The draft amendment is expected to face considerable opposition as it makes its way through the lower house and then Senate. The lower house last week approved in its final reading a Communist-backed bill that would require announcers, advertisers, and others to use correct Czech grammar on television and radio; that bill is awaiting debate in the upper house, or Senate. AH
SLOVAK PREMIER CONFRONTS PARTY-FINANCING SCANDAL
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda was forced on 31 March to confront media reports alleging that his Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) falsified information about the source of financial contributions to the party, TASR and local media reported. Many observers have questioned the timing of the reports, since the information has been public for some time and Slovak voters head to the polls on 3 April to elect a president and to decide on a referendum calling for early elections. The nongovernmental group Fair Play Alliance first reported irregularities in the list of party donors that the SDKU posted for 2002, but stories in the Slovak dailies "Novy cas" and "Sme" this week claimed a number of those listed -- and responsible for hundreds of thousands of Slovak crowns in donations -- never gave a crown to the SDKU. "What we [the SDKE] published is true," Dzurinda told a news conference on NATO membership at which the focus instead turned to party financing. Police Vice President Jaroslav Spisiak and Deputy Prosecutor-General Ctibor Kostal said one of their respective institutions will investigate the allegations, the "Sme" website (http://www.sme.sk) reported on 1 April. AH
HUNGARIAN COALITION CRITICIZES OPPOSITION PARTY'S NATIONAL PETITION
According to the Hungarian government's calculations, the proposals formulated in a national petition recently put forward by the opposition FIDESZ party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004) would increase expenditures by some 400 billion forints ($1.9 billion) and deprive the budget of an additional 250 billion forints in revenues, a government spokeswoman told "Nepszabadsag" of 31 March. In light of such figures, she added, FIDESZ should reconsider its proposal to amend the state budget. Gabor Kuncze, chairman of the junior coalition Alliance of Free Democrats, said FIDESZ's proposal would be feasible only if every Hungarian citizen paid an additional 100,000 forints ($490) in annual income taxes, "Magyar Hirlap" reported on 1 April. MSZ
U.S. BLOCKS AID TO SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington on 31 March that Secretary of State Colin Powell has decided to suspend temporarily at least $26 million in aid for Serbia and Montenegro because of that country's failure to cooperate adequately with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, RFE/RL reported. Ereli stressed that Powell "cannot certify to Congress that Serbia and Montenegro is cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and, as a result, as of March 31st, new assistance for Serbia will stop." The spokesman said it is vital that Belgrade authorities "cooperate fully with the tribunal by arresting and transferring their fugitive indictees, particularly [former Bosnian Serb General] Ratko Mladic, to face justice" in The Hague. The aid ban can be lifted in the future if Powell decides that Belgrade has met the requirements for receiving U.S. assistance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2004, "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December and 20 February 2004, and "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 5 and 12 February 2004). PM
MAJOR BOSNIAN SERB WAR CRIMES INDICTEE AGAIN EVADES CAPTURE
About 40 U.S., U.K., German, and Slovenian SFOR peacekeepers unsuccessfully attempted to find and capture leading indicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic at a Serbian Orthodox Church residence in Pale early on 1 April, Reuters reported. Father Jeremija Starovlah and his son were seriously injured in a blast set off by SFOR as troops attempted to enter the complex. SFOR spokesman Captain Dave Sullivan told reporters that "despite precautions [by the peacekeepers], two civilians were injured inside the house. They received blast injuries." The two are in critical condition in a Tuzla hospital. After the raid began, about 200 angry local Serbs protested the attempt to capture Karadzic -- whom many Bosnian Serbs regard as a hero -- and the use of violence close to a church. Father Jeremija recently told the Sarajevo media that it is the duty of all priests to help Karadzic because he saved the Serbs from genocide during the 1992-95 conflict. Father Jeremija added, however, that he has not seen Karadzic since 1997 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January 2004). Sullivan said on 1 April that every NATO action against indicted war criminals is one step closer to catching them, adding, however, that it is the duty of the Bosnian authorities to do so. PM
UN SEEKS CLARITY IN IMPLEMENTING STANDARDS IN KOSOVA
Harri Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), and Kosova's Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi said in Prishtina on 31 March that Holkeri's new 120-page guide to implementing his eight standards is aimed at removing any ambiguity as to what must be done before talks on Kosova's final status can begin and who is responsible for which tasks, regional and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2003, 13 February, and 19 and 26 March 2004). Among other things, the plan requires the passage of about 40 laws to bring Kosova's legislation into line with European standards. Rexhepi told reporters that "the government is determined to fulfill these standards and after the evaluation [of its performance] by mid-2005 to start the process for defining Kosova's final status." Holkeri said he regrets that representatives of the Serbian minority declined to help prepare the program, which is binding on all. Nebojsa Covic, who is Belgrade's point man for Kosova, said that the report is window dressing aimed at disguising plans to make Kosova independent. PM
NATO TO SCALE BACK DIPLOMATIC PRESENCE IN MACEDONIA
NATO is reportedly planning to scale back the level of its diplomatic presence in Macedonia by 1 July because of the improved security situation in that country, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 1 April, quoting unnamed diplomatic sources in Brussels. Current NATO Ambassador to Macedonia Nicolaas Biegman will be the last ambassador of the alliance in Skopje. In the future, NATO will be represented by political advisers only. At present, NATO has ambassadors only in Afghanistan and Macedonia. UB
TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL CRITICIZES ROMANIA'S ANTICORRUPTION PROGRESS
Transparency International in a report presented in Bucharest on 31 March said that while Romania has strengthened its institutional capability to combat corruption and adopted laws in that respect, the country has done very little to tackle major perpetrators of graft, Romanian media reported. The report said only "small and middle-sized" offenders have been punished. "Tackling big corruption cases is crucial for changing the corruption perception, both at home and abroad," said Adrian Savin, an expert with Transparency International's Romanian branch, Reuters reported. The report also stated that little has been done to ensure the judiciary's independence from other state authorities. According to the report, Romania ranks among what it calls "high political corruption" countries, such as Angola, Nigeria, and Panama. ZsM
MOLDOVAN SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS DECISION IN FAVOR OF BESSARABIAN CHURCH
The Moldovan Supreme Court on 31 March rejected the Moldovan government's appeal against an earlier court decision favoring the Bucharest-subordinated Bessarabian Metropolitan Church in a dispute over church property rights, Flux reported. In a 2 February ruling, the court favored the church in its lawsuit against a government decision to transfer the properties of the former Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia to the rival Moscow-subordinated Metropolitan Church of Moldova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2004). ZsM
MOLDOVAN JOURNALISTS BEGIN HUNGER STRIKE
Employees of the Chisinau-based Euro-TV and one employee of the municipal Antena C radio station began a hunger strike on 31 March to protest against the Moldovan Audiovisual Coordinating Council's (CCA) refusal to legally register the two institutions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004), Flux reported. The CCA on 30 March suspended a meeting that was to examine the possibility of registering the media outlets, which were often critical of the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists. ZsM
BULGARIAN PREMIER SPEAKS WITH U.S. MILITARY ABOUT POSSIBILITY OF HOSTING U.S. BASES...
Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski, speaking in Sofia on his return from Washington on 31 March, said that he held talks with General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the possibility of setting up U.S. military bases in Bulgaria, BTA reported. Saxecoburggotski said Myers explained that today's military bases cannot be compared to the large U.S. bases in West Germany, which were set up during the Cold War. According to Saxecoburggotski, the U.S. Army is interested in using Bulgarian military training grounds and in setting up temporary military bases, but is not interested in moving large military installations to Bulgaria. UB
...AS DEFENSE MINISTER SUGGESTS MILITARY MERGER
Nikolay Svinarov said in a public lecture in Sofia on 31 March that Bulgaria's NATO membership requires the reconciliation of the General Staff and the Defense Ministry, which have clashed in the past over the financing and strength of the army, mediapool.bg reported. Svinarov suggested that one solution could be for the ministry and General Staff to merge. Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev recently urged the parliament to not delay important changes to the law on the armed forces. Under the current legislation, only volunteers can be deployed for military missions abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February, 23 and 30 March 2004). UB
GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY BALLOT LEAVES SOUR AFTERTASTE
As widely anticipated, Georgia's new leadership has cemented its control of the levers of power, garnering some 76 percent of the vote in the 28 March election for the 150 parliamentary mandates distributed under the proportional system. With all but a few thousand votes counted late on 31 March, the National Movement-Democrats, whose leaders are President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, and Nino Burdjanadze, speaker of the outgoing parliament, had won 67.2 percent of the vote. The only other political party to win representation under proportional system was the Industrialists-New Rightists alignment, which polled 7.62 percent.
The big loser was the Union for Democratic Revival (DAK) headed by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, which polled 6.2 percent, less than the 7 percent minimum required for parliamentary representation under the proportional system. Abashidze accused the central Georgian authorities on 30 March of deliberately minimizing the number of votes cast in his favor by supplying his autonomous republic with less than half the required number of forms for voter registration. Georgian Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili, however, said on 29 March that additional ballots were dispatched to Adjaria on 28 March when the initial number proved insufficient, but only a few hundred of them were in fact used. Initial returns showed that Abashidze's party in fact polled the highest number of votes in Adjaria -- some 58,000 compared with 55,000 for the National Movement/Democrats. But nationwide the DAK failed to garner the required 7 percent minimum, or a total of some 120,000 votes. On 31 March, Abashidze said he will appeal the election outcome to the Constitutional Court.
Tamaz Diasamidze, one of the leaders of the opposition movement Our Adjara that seeks Abashidze's ouster, told Caucasus Press on 28 March that in his opinion the voting in Adjaria was "quite democratic," in marked contrast to previous ballots. But two days later, CEC Chairman Chiaberashvili warned that the results in some Adjar constituencies could be annulled due to "serious violations," including the threat or use of violence against voters or precinct officials.
The opposition Labor Party also questioned the accuracy of official returns that gave it only 5.8 percent of the vote. Labor Party activists said after polls closed on 28 March that according to their exit polls, they won some 32 percent. Labor had similarly claimed that the number of ballots cast for it in the 2 November parliamentary election was revised downward. And at a press conference on 30 March, the leaders of the Industrialists/New Rightists, Gogi Topadze and David Gamkrelidze, expressed apprehension that in the course of counting the remaining ballot papers the CEC would falsify the results from several constituencies where that bloc polled a particularly large number of votes.
Fears that the officially promulgated outcome of the ballot would not correspond to reality were expressed even before the election. Two parties -- the Communist Party of Georgia and the newly created Party for the Protection of Constitutional Rights, which includes some former members of erstwhile President Eduard Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia -- pulled out of the ballot on 26 March. The Justice Party headed by former National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze called the same day for a boycott of the vote. Party secretary Revaz Bulia told journalists that "there is no sense in participating in the elections. Everything has been decided. This parliament will be not elected, it will be appointed," Caucasus Press reported.
Voter turnout on 28 March was estimated at 65 percent, which is 10 percent less than in the 4 January presidential ballot in which Saakashvili won a staggering 96 percent of the vote. Whether the lower turnout is to be attributed to voter fatigue is a matter for conjecture, as is the reason for the lower level of support for the National Movement/Democrats list. Do voters have less trust in Zhvania and Burdjanadze than they do in the president? Alternatively, has the euphoria of Saakashvili's so-called Rose Revolution dissipated to the point that voters have begun to ponder the inconsistency of his public pronouncements?
Among those inconsistencies were statements made on 24 March and 28 March regarding the composition of the new parliament. Addressing journalists in Tbilisi prior to the ballot, Saakashvili said there is no need for an opposition presence in the parliament. A 25 March press release circulated by the opposition New Rightists 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 also annulled the outcome of the 2 November parliamentary election in the 75 single-mandate constituencies. (Caucasus Press calculated on 29 March that there will be a minimum of 13 opposition and independent deputies elected from single-mandate constituencies, with secondary elections still pending in at least four constituencies.)
On 29 March, however, when initial returns suggested that no opposition party would succeed in surmounting the 7 percent threshold, Saakashvili professed himself disappointed that the opposition had not made a stronger showing. "But that is what fair elections are all about," he said. "We cannot engineer the results of elections in our own favor."
AFGHAN LEADER PLEADS CASE FOR FURTHER AID...
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai told the two-day donors conference in Berlin on 31 March that his country "has provided a wonderful, unique example of the cooperation of civilizations," RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. "Today, Afghanistan represents a unique example in international relations. A multilateral partnership is working well, with very promising prospects," Karzai added. "The goal of this partnership is to create an Afghanistan that is politically stable and democratic and economically prosperous, an Afghanistan that contributes to regional and global stability and peace." The next obstacle on Afghanistan's path to recovery will be the organization and convening of presidential and parliamentary elections in September, Karzai said. AT
...WHILE HIS FINANCE MINISTER CALLS AFGHAN AID 'AN INVESTMENT'
Ashraf Ghani told the same donors conference on 31 March that Afghanistan is asking for assistance "to actually save" the donors money, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. "Afghanistan indeed is poor, but it is also strategic," Ghani added. "Ignoring Afghanistan has cost the world dearly." Afghanistan is not "asking for charity," he said, but "for an investment." Afghans are unique in the Muslim world in desiring a "partnership" with the West, Ghani claimed. The goal for Afghanistan is to generate local revenues of at least $1.5 billion annually for the next seven years, which would move the country from "abject poverty" to at least "poverty with dignity," Ghani added. The domestic economy is in shambles and Afghans are increasingly turning to opium production as a means to earn a living (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 February 2004). AT
AFGHANISTAN GETS INCREASED PLEDGES FOR THE SHORT TERM
The tally of pledges of aid at the Berlin conference stood at $4.5 billion for the Afghan year 1383 (March 2004-March 2005) on 1 April, according to estimates obtained by RFE/RL. That amount represents an increase of 2 percent over the target of $4.4 billion set by the Afghan Transitional Administration. Afghanistan has received pledges of $8.2 billion over a three-year period from 1383 to 1385 (2006-07), which represents 69 percent of the $8.2 billion in requirements set by the Afghan Finance Ministry. While the Berlin conference is a victory for Karzai's administration in the short term, donors did not approach the Afghan Transitional Administration's wish for $27.5 billion over the next seven years (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 1 April 2004). The numbers in the estimates cited by RFE/RL are not final, and there appear to be discrepancies in at least one donor country's actual pledge versus the amount noted in the tally. AT
RUSSIAN FEDERATION FOCUSES ON SOVIET-ERA LOANS TO AFGHANISTAN
Russian Foreign Minister Sergay Lavrov said that while his country did not make any pledges for aid to Afghanistan at the donors meeting held in Tokyo in January 2002, Russian has "given assistance in various forms to the new Afghanistan amounting" to $170 million, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 March. "One of the serious obstacles to our giving direct financial assistance to the interim administration is Afghanistan's state debt inherited from the Soviet [era]," Lavrov said. Russia is trying to solve that issue on terms that are "most favorable for Afghanistan," Lavrov added. Afghanistan's lingering debt to Russia, according to Russian sources, is about $9.8 billion, which Moscow is reportedly willing to reduce to $2 billion. The Soviet Union's 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan cost that country enormous numbers of casualties, drained precious resources from central and local authorities, and arguably deserves some of the blame for Afghanistan's status as a failed state. (For more on the Russian-debt issue, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report, " 25 September 2003.) AT
MORE TEHRAN COMMENTARY ON UZBEK TERROR ATTACKS
Echoing an earlier English-language commentary, Iranian state radio's Persian-language broadcast from Mashhad accused the United States of using the 28 and 29 March bombings and attacks in Bukhara and Tashkent as a justification for its military presence in Central Asia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2004). Unlike in its English-language report, however, the broadcaster also predicted the incidents will be used as a pretext for a U.S. presence in Southern Asia and said the U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan contributes to insecurity there. (Iranian state radio's Persian-speaking audience resides largely in Afghanistan.) The Persian-language commentary also claimed the incidents in Uzbekistan will move Washington and Moscow closer together in their fight against terrorism. "It can also be predicted at international level that the U.S.A. might blame the recent terrorist acts in Uzbekistan on Muslims in order to stress that there is a connection between terrorism and Islam and to implement its anti-Islamic plans," Iranian-state radio claimed. BS
IRANIAN SUPERVISORY BODY TO ANNOUNCE MORE ELECTION RESULTS
Mohammad Jahromi, who is in charge of election affairs at the Guardians Council, announced on 31 March that the council will decide on 4 April on the final election results in Azad Shahr, Bandar Anzali, Behbahan, Esrafiyan, Lahijan, Ramian, and Shirvan, ILNA reported. Jahromi said there will be a second round of voting in 39 constituencies in which candidates did not garner a sufficient number of votes to win outright. There also will be a second round in Babolsar and Fereidunkenar constituency, where the winning conservative candidate resigned after several days of rioting by the locals (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 March 2004). Jahromi said 64 candidates will be elected in the second round, and 220 were elected in the first round. The seventh parliament will begin work on 27 May. BS
IRANIAN PARLIAMENT TO QUESTION CABINET MEMBERS
Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari will appear before the legislature at its first session of the new year to answer questions posed by Qom representative Ali Yasrebi, and Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ahmad Masjid-Jamei will face questioning from Khuzestan Province representatives about the poor cultural situation there, ILNA reported on 31 March. Other items on the agenda in that first week will be parliamentarians' resignations, complaints from the families of national-religious activists, and various committee reports, ISNA reported on 30 March. BS
EUROPEANS FED UP WITH IRANIAN OBFUSCATION
A 31 March statement from the governments of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom discouraged Iran from its announced intention of producing uranium hexafluoride, metal uranium, and uranium oxide, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). According to the statement, "This announcement sends the wrong signal about Iranian willingness to implement a suspension of nuclear enrichment-related activities," the "Financial Times" reported on 1 April. It added, "It will make it more difficult for Iran to restore international confidence in its activities. Iran must explain its announcement and its intentions," Reuters reported on 31 March. Foreign ministers from the EU's "Big Three" had visited Tehran in October and made concessions -- including provision of easier access to modern technology and supplies -- in exchange for Tehran's promise to suspend uranium enrichment and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 October 2003). BS
IRAN SAID TO BE OBSTRUCTING NUCLEAR INSPECTORS
Inspectors from the IAEA are currently in Iran, and an internal IAEA report notes that inspectors' earlier visits were stage-managed, Reuters reported on 31 March. "The agency's visit [in January] was 'managed' by the Iranians in the sense that the inspectors were not permitted to take pictures with IAEA cameras or use their own electronic equipment," the IAEA document stated. Anonymous Western diplomats also told Reuters that new intelligence indicates that Iran has a secret uranium-enrichment program that could produce fuel for an atomic bomb. There is suspicion that enrichment activities have been relocated from Natanz, a site that IAEA inspectors currently in Iran are expected to visit. "We've got lot of intelligence about small enrichment plants [in Iran] for some months, going back to the November [IAEA] board meeting," a Western diplomat said. Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Piruz Husseini told Reuters that such allegations are "baseless" and reflect efforts to destroy Iran-IAEA cooperation. BS
EXPANSION OF IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL SAID LIKELY
Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi told Al-Jazeera television on 31 March that consultations among all sectors of Iraqi society, as well as with UN and coalition officials, will likely lead to the formation of an expanded governing council that would assume power on 30 June. "We hope that we will reach a formula that will be accepted by all. I do not think that the Governing Council will remain as it is now. I rule this out. An expanded Governing Council or a body that comprises 50-75 members -- some of whom could be from the Governing Council because many of its members represent important sectors of the Iraqi society -- might be formed. We will discuss these details soon until we reach a solution that will be accepted by all parties," Pachachi said. U.S. officials have said in recent days that they would be open to other proposals on the shape of the interim Iraqi government, but cautioned that time is running out and that an expanded Governing Council might be the only way forward in order to meet the 30 June deadline for the transfer of power to Iraqis. KR
BAGHDAD DAILY REPORTS ON DISMISSAL OF MOSUL GOVERNOR
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's Baghdad daily "Al-Ittihad" reported on 30 March that Ninawah Governor Ghanim Sultan Abdullah al-Basso was dismissed from his job by coalition authorities, and did not resign as international media had reported. AP reported on 30 March that al-Basso resigned from his position after being questioned by coalition officials about alleged corruption. According to "Al-Ittihad," Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer said that al-Basso was dismissed due to negligence and links to the former Ba'ath Party. He was apparently not charged. KR
INC NEWSPAPER SAYS U.S.-SUPPORTED DAILY 'CONSECRATES' THE OCCUPATION...
The Iraqi National Congress newspaper "Al-Mu'tamar" criticized the U.S.-supported daily "Al-Sabah" for "speaking in the occupation's name" in a 28 March report. The article in "Al-Mu'tamar" cites an earlier report by its newspaper, titled "Support by State Ministries to Al-Sabah Newspaper Consecrates the Occupation," and argues that association with the state leads to the support and perpetuation of the occupation. "Al-Mu'tamar" further reported that a response in an "Al-Sabah" editorial by its editor in chief, Ismail Zayir, shocked the INC because Zayir "made fun" of INC head Ahmad Chalabi. "Al-Mu'tamar" called Chalabi a "national symbol who was able to unify [the opposition] and lead them in bringing down the dictator [Saddam Hussein] and save the Iraqi people." Moreover, "Al-Mu'tamar" criticized "Al-Sabah," asking whether the newspaper would continue to operate once power is transferred to Iraqis on 30 June. KR
...AS SHI'ITE CLERIC JOINS THE FRAY
Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also criticized the U.S.-supported daily "Al-Sabah" in a statement, the Ilaf website (http://www.elaph.com) reported on 31 March. Al-Sadr accused "Al-Sabah" Editor Zayir of spreading the culture of acceptance of the occupation and offending the public. He argued that Zayir was installed by the occupation as the "godfather" of the Iraqi media and chairman of what al-Sadr labeled the "non-Iraqi" press council. Al-Sadr contended that Zayir is "far removed from the media and culture apart from taking a [suspicious] media course," adding that Zayir was "unpatriotic and dishonorable." KR
IRAQ CUSTOMS DUTY TAKES EFFECT
Iraq began imposing a 5 percent customs duty on all imports on 1 April, Reuters reported. The tax applies to imported vehicles and electronic goods. Items such as books, food, medicine, medical equipment, and clothing are exempt from the tariff, the news agency reported. Coalition officials in Iraq reportedly hope that the customs duty will help channel imports through official entry points where they will be documented. Until now, international media has reported a virtual free-for-all, as suppliers flooded the Iraqi market in the postwar months with cars, electronics, and other high-demand items unavailable to Iraqis in recent years. According to Peter Bingham, a ports and maritime adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the customs duty "will help ports organize and get statistics," Reuters reported. The Umm Qasr port's customs director Hassan Zayir told Reuters that the new 5 percent levy would not dissuade importers. He said that under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "the duty was 200 percent on cars, 100 percent on sweets, 75 percent on air conditioners, 50 percent on clothes, and 30 percent on television sets." KR