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Newsline - April 27, 2004


RUSSIA, EU SIGN ACCORD ON COOPERATION
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Luxembourg on 27 April for a session of the Russia-EU Permanent Council at which the two sides signed an agreement to extend to the 10 countries expected to join the EU on 1 May Russia's Partnership and Cooperation Treaty with the union, Russian and international media reported. The Russian government on 26 April approved the text of the agreement and of a joint statement, Interfax and other Russian media reported. The joint statement says that the two sides "reaffirm their commitment to ensuring that EU enlargement will bring the EU and Russia closer together in a Europe without dividing lines." "Both sides underline their commitment to the protection of human rights and the protection of [ethnic] minorities," the statement says. An EU-Russia summit will be held in Moscow on 21 May. RC

A DAY OF BAD NEWS FOR YUKOS...
A group of Western banks on 26 April warned that embattled oil giant Yukos is in danger of defaulting on a $1 billion loan package, Russian and Western media reported on 27 April. The warning came after a Russian court froze Yukos's assets pending the resolution of the government's $3.5 billion tax-arrears claim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 April 2004). The banking consortium has not called in its loan, "The Moscow Times" reported. In the 45 minutes following the announcement of the banks' warning, Yukos's capitalization fell by 9.58 percent. On 26 April, the London-based "Financial Times," citing unnamed Kremlin sources, reported that the government has approved the sale of a 25 percent plus one share blocking stake in oil giant Sibneft to France's Total. Spokesmen for Sibneft and Total refused to comment on the report, "Izvestiya" reported on 27 April. Yukos currently owns 92 percent of Sibneft, although the two companies are in the process of de-merging. RC

...AS FORMER CENTRAL BANK CHAIRMAN PREPARES TO JOIN THE BOARD
Former Central Bank Chairman and current State Duma Deputy Viktor Gerashchenko (Motherland) said on 27 April that he will accept an invitation to run for Yukos's board of directors, Interfax reported. The current Yukos board must approve his nomination on 28 April and shareholders must endorse it at a general meeting on 24 June. Gerashchenko said he will quit the Duma if he is elected to the company's board. RC

SUCCESSFUL TEST OF MOBILE ICBM ANNOUNCED
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov informed President Vladimir Putin on 26 April that a successful test launch of a Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile (NATO designation SS-25) was carried out earlier that day, "Izvestiya" and strana.ru reported on 27 April. The mobile version of the Topol missile successfully hit its target at a distance of 11,500 kilometers, its maximum range. Ivanov told Putin that there will be one more test of the Topol-M, but the military hopes a decision about deploying the missile can be made by the end of the year. The missile was first tested in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). The missile is equipped with a hypersonic warhead that is capable of both ballistic and atmospheric flight. The mobile missile launcher is capable of traveling hundreds of kilometers across road-less terrain. RC

KREMLIN OFFERS REVISIONS ON CONTROVERSIAL LAW ON DEMONSTRATIONS...
President Putin sent his comments on a new draft law on public demonstrations to the Duma on 26 April, RIA-Novosti and Ekho Moskvy reported. According to the agency, Putin suggested new versions of several articles of the bill in order to bring it in line with international agreements and other Russian legislation. State Duma Deputy Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (Unified Russia) told reporters he hopes the president's "corrections" will defuse criticism of the bill, which he said will be fundamentally changed before its second and third readings. The bill, which was passed in its first reading on 31 March, was criticized as abridging citizens' constitutional right of assembly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 April 2004). Communist Deputy Oleg Kulikov told gazeta.ru that Putin's amendments constitute "a major blow to the Unified Russia faction, which will thoughtlessly vote for any unjustified, unproven initiative of the government or presidential administration." JAC

...BUT CRITICS SAY BILL WOULD STILL LIMIT CITIZENS' RIGHTS
Members of opposition parties and public movements do not consider the president's revisions of the bill on demonstrations sufficiently liberal, "Vedomosti" reported on 27 April. Yabloko party Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin told the daily that the "amendments soften several articles a little bit, but the right of bureaucrats to ban demonstrations of their own volition essentially remains." Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the Ekozashita ecological movement, said the presidential amendments improve the bill only somewhat. "It is completely incomprehensible why the unconstitutional ban on conducting demonstrations in the vicinity of presidential residences and hazardous-materials enterprises has been retained," he said. JAC

SUTYAGIN DECLARED POLITICAL PRISONER
Amnesty International has declared political scientist and convicted spy Igor Sutyagin a political prisoner, Russian media reported on 26 April. Sergei Nikitin, director of the group's Russian Resource Center, reported that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee for Defense of the Rights of Scholars, and the Moscow Helsinki Group have signed a joint appeal to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) asking them to intervene, gazeta.ru reported. The groups also charged that the legal process against Sutyagin is proof that a process of political repression has begun in Russia. Boris Kuznetsov, one of Sutyagin's lawyers, told the website that Amnesty's announcement might help Sutyagin when the Supreme Court considers his appeal. Sutyagin was sentenced to 15 years for espionage earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 April 2004). JAC

WAS CONVICTED SPY RELEASED LAST YEAR?
The website agentura.ru on 23 April reported that Platon Obukhov, a Russian diplomat who was convicted of spying for the United Kingdom in 2000, was quietly released by a Moscow court on 18 July 2003. The website quoted Obukhov's mother and his lawyer, Galina Krylova, as saying that Obukhov was granted conditional release and is receiving out-patient treatment for schizophrenia at home. According to the report, both the Moscow court and the Federal Security Service (FSB) refused to confirm or deny the rumor. "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 24 April reported that it had been unable to confirm or refute the report of Obukhov's release, although it quoted an unidentified "diplomatic source" as saying that Obukhov might have been used as a "bargaining chip" in some deal with Western intelligence agencies. RC

ELECTION TSAR TO MONITOR U.S. PRESIDENTIAL VOTE
Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov will travel to the United States this fall to monitor the U.S. presidential election as part of a mission from the Association of the Central and Eastern Europe Elections Organizers (ACEEEO), "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 27 April. Veshnyakov told journalists on 26 April that the mission intends "to gather experience" in the use of electronic voting machines. "Everything positive we intend to study for possible use at home," he said. "Everything negative will also be studied so that we can avoid repeating others' mistakes." RC

UNION LEADER ENTERS DUMA
Russian Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers First Deputy Chairman Ruben Badalov has assumed the State Duma seat left vacant by the 28 March election of Georgii Shpak as Ryazan Oblast governor, RosBalt and RIA-Novosti reported on 26 April. Badalov was elevated from the Motherland bloc's party list. JAC

NEW MAYOR ELECTED IN SOCHI
Viktor Kolodyazhnyi was confirmed the winner of the 25 April mayoral election in Sochi on 26 April, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 27 April. Kolodyazhnyi, who has served as acting Sochi mayor since January and who is a close ally of Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev, won more than 73 percent of the vote, while Krasnodar Krai legislature Deputy Aleksei Gorbunov came in second with 12 percent. The previous mayor, Leonid Mostovoi, was removed late last year following an open conflict with Tkachev. Mostovoi is now Tkachev's representative in the Federation Council. RC

GOVERNMENT DOES NOT PLAN TO RENT OUT OFFICE SPACE FOLLOWING STAFF REDUCTIONS
Government apparatus head Dmitrii Kozak told reporters on 26 April that the government does not plan to rent out offices in the White House that have been emptied following the government reorganization, RIA-Novosti reported. "The offices will be sealed, thus saving money on their upkeep," he said. According to "Vedomosti" on 27 April, Kozak said the reorganization of the government apparatus will reduce personnel from 1,017 to 240, and cut 23 departments to 12. JAC

RUSSIA A LEADING MARKET FOR HOLLYWOOD PRODUCTS
Russia is one of the top consumers of U.S. films, occupying 14th place among countries with the biggest box-office take, ITAR-TASS reported on 26 April, citing data from the American Association of Cinematographers. The association noted that revenues from Russia would have been even greater if there was less piracy of U.S. films there. Last week, the Duma rejected a bill that would have imposed limits on the showing of foreign films in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 April 2004). Meanwhile, a Russian human rights group is examining the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the producers of the movie "The Passion of the Christ" and against the Russian companies that are distributing it, Interfax reported on 22 April. Moscow Bureau for Human Rights Director Aleksandr Brod told Interfax that several Jewish groups and individuals have appealed to his organization, charging that the film inflames ethnic tensions and propagates xenophobic myths about the guilt of the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Christ. Brod said his group will make a final decision about the lawsuit after reviewing reports about the film from religious experts. JAC

ENVOY NIXES MUMMY'S RETURN
Presidential envoy to the Siberian Federal District Leonid Drachevskii has said he opposes returning a mummified princess and prince from the Novosibirsk Institute for History and Archeology to their original burial place on the Altai Republic's Ukok plateau, izv.ru reported on 26 April. Some republic residents, including Kosh-Acharskii Raion head Auilkhan Dzhatkambaev, have appealed for the mummies' return, arguing that recent earthquakes in the region were triggered by the princess's anger at being dug up some 11 years ago after centuries of rest. Only returning her to her resting place will prevent future earthquakes, some locals believe. Drachevskii commented that he "is uncomfortable hearing about angry spirits as if we were [still] living in the Middle Ages." "The mummies are part of world historical heritage," Drachevskii said, "and we should not interfere with scholars and their studies." According to izv.ru, scholars believe that the "princess" was in fact a member of the middle class, while the "prince" was an ordinary soldier. JAC

ARMENIAN COALITION PARTIES, OPPOSITION EMBARK ON DIALOGUE...
At the initiative of parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, representatives of the three-party ruling coalition met on 26 April at the parliament building with leaders of the opposition Artarutiun alliance to discuss ways of resolving the tensions generated by the opposition's ongoing campaign to force President Robert Kocharian to resign, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The opposition National Accord Party, which has co-sponsored that campaign, did not send a representative to the talks as its chairman, Artashes Geghamian, is currently attending the spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Although no concrete agreement was reached at the talks, an unnamed Artarutiun member characterized them as "very constructive and friendly" and said they will resume on 27 April. Interfax on 26 April quoted leading Artarutiun member Viktor Dallakian as saying that the movement will continue to demand the release of persons arrested following an opposition protest in Yerevan on 12-13 April, suspending the criminal case opened against Artarutiun, and providing opposition leaders with live airtime on public television. LF

...AS ARMENIAN PRESIDENT SLAMS PLANNED NEW DEMONSTRATION
On the eve of his 25 April departure for a working visit to France, President Kocharian denounced as "treason" and "a political crime" opposition plans to convene a further mass protest demonstration in Yerevan on 27 April, Interfax reported. Kocharian is scheduled to meet on that day in Warsaw with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev to discuss approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict. Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian similarly told journalists on 26 April that the opposition should refrain from actions that could weaken Armenia's negotiating position at a time when the country is trying to resolve "difficult problems," including that of Nagorno-Karabakh, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

ARMENIA, U.S. DISCUSS MILITARY COOPERATION
General Charles Wald, who is deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe, met in Yerevan on 25 April with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian to discuss bilateral military cooperation, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Agreement was reached on holding joint maneuvers at an unspecified future date. On 26 April, Wald and Armenian armed forces Chief of General Staff Colonel General Mikael Harutiunian signed an agreement on the "acquisition and provision of mutual services" that Wald characterized as reflecting the depth and importance of bilateral cooperation. Wald praised Armenia's participation in the war on terrorism. He also stressed that Azerbaijani President Aliyev has personally assured him that Baku will not raise any obstacles to Armenian participation in NATO exercises to be held in Azerbaijan later this year, according to Mediamax on 26 April as cited by Groong. Two Armenian officers were prevented in January from travelling to Baku to attend a conference on preparations for those maneuvers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12, 14 and 15 January 2004). LF

OPPOSITION CLOSES RANKS IN AZERBAIJANI EXCLAVE
The Nakhichevan regional organizations of most Azerbaijani opposition parties, including Musavat, the Azerbaijan National Independence Party, and both wings of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), have joined forces to create a Center for Democratic Development, and plan to contest jointly the municipal and parliamentary elections due in December 2004 and November 2005 respectively, Turan reported on 26 April. The Center for Democratic Development will be headed by Asaf Guliev of the AHCP, who said the center will try to promote democratization in Nakhichevan and the holding of free elections. LF

GEORGIAN PREMIER URGES U.S., RUSSIA TO PRESSURE ADJARIA
Speaking in Washington on 26 April, Zurab Zhvania appealed to the U.S. and Russian leaderships to increase political and economic pressure on Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze to make the concessions demanded of him by Tbilisi, Caucasus Press reported. Describing Abashidze as a holdover from the era of former President Eduard Shevardnadze and as the new Georgian leadership's "main headache," Zhvania stressed that "we will not allow Abashidze to instigate an armed conflict." Abashidze has shown no signs of doing so, whereas Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has threatened military intervention in Adjaria (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 April 2004). Zhvania also admitted on 26 April that the former Georgian leadership failed to react to repeated Russian expressions of concern at the presence of terrorist elements in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, Caucasus Press reported. Zhvania affirmed that the new Georgian leadership will not allow terrorist elements to use Georgian territory as a base. LF

GEORGIAN SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS ELECTION OUTCOME
The Supreme Court rejected on 26 April an appeal by the opposition Labor Party to annul the final results of the 28 March parliamentary elections, Georgian media reported. The party claims that the returns were falsified and the number of ballots cast for the Labor Party revised downwards in order to prevent it from surmounting the 7 percent threshold needed to win parliamentary representation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March and 14 April 2004). LF

FORMER GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S SON-IN-LAW RELEASED FROM PRE-TRIAL DETENTION
Gia Djokhtaberidze, president of the mobile phone operator Magticom, was released on 26 April from pre-trial detention, and Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili told journalists that the criminal case against Djokhtaberidze has been closed, Georgian media reported. Djokhtaberidze was arrested in February on suspicion of withholding some 700,000 laris ($338,242) in taxes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 24 February and 1 March 2004). Okruashvili claimed Djokhtaberidze's wife Manana Shevardnadze, daughter of the former president, made a "voluntary contribution" of $15.5 million from her personal bank account to the state budget. President Saakashvili has said most of those funds, which he claimed Shevardnadze's family took from the Georgian people, will be used to pay off pensions arrears and student stipends, with some $2-3 million being channeled to the armed forces. Djokhtaberidze's U.S. lawyer denied, however, that Manana Shevardnadze paid personally to secure her husband's release; he said the money in question was taken from Magticom's profits for 2003, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT AFFIRMS RESPECT FOR MUSLIMS
President Saakashvili visited a mosque in Tbilisi on 25 April in what he termed a gesture of support and respect for Georgia's Muslims, Caucasus Press reported on 26 April. Last week the Azerbaijani online daily zerkalo.az published a letter from representatives of Georgia's Azerbaijani community complaining that they are subject to systematic reprisals and harassment by local Georgian officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 April 2004). LF

GEORGIAN BUDGET FOR 2004 SUBMITTED TO PARLIAMENT
The draft budget for 2004 has been submitted to parliament for approval, Caucasus Press reported on 26 April. According to an unnamed Finance Ministry official, revenues are set at 1.42 billion laris ($686.1 million), an increase of 415 million laris over 2003. Income from state-run enterprises will account for a smaller share of revenues than in previous years, while tax revenues will increase by 28 million laris to 1.329 billion laris. Expenditures will amount to 1.728 billion laris; the ensuing deficit will be covered by foreign grants. GDP growth in 2004 is set at 6 percent compared with the 5 percent achieved in 2003. Priority areas for spending will be agriculture, energy, and the social sector. By contrast, there will be no rise in spending on defense and the police, with the Defense Ministry receiving 67 million laris. The budget allocates 90 million laris toward servicing the country's $2 billion foreign debt, 36.5 million laris for paying back pensions, and 31.5 million for paying public-sector wage arrears. LF

KAZAKHSTAN TO LIMIT EXCHANGE-RATE FLUCTUATIONS
President Nursultan Nazarbaev met with Finance Minister Arman Dunaev on 26 April to discuss the regulation of financial markets, Khabar TV reported the same day. The two agreed that steps must be taken to safeguard the national currency -- the tenge -- against increases in value that could undercut the competitiveness of Kazakh exporters. The president also suggested that the cabinet should consider a program for the development of the insurance industry, as well as changes to the law on joint-stock companies and securities markets, KazInform reported. In the same meeting, National Bank chairman Anvar Saydenov delivered the bank's annual report to the president. DK

RUSSIA GIVES KYRGYZSTAN $2.3 MILLION WORTH OF MILITARY AID
State-owned Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport gave Kyrgyzstan nearly $2.3 million worth of military equipment on 26 April for Kyrgyz rapid-reaction forces under the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB), akipress.org reported the same day. The ceremony took place at the Russian air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, and was attended by Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and Defense Minister Colonel General Esen Topoev, as well as Rosoboronexport deputy directors Anatoliy Isaikin and Aleksei Aleshin. The equipment includes firearms, ammunition, optical sites, bullet-proof vests, uniforms, and spare parts. Isaikin told journalists, "This aid is not a one-time event," akipress.org reported. RIA-Novosti quoted Prime Minister Tanaev as saying that the gift "illustrates the increasing level of bilateral ties between Kyrgyzstan and Russia in all areas." He went on to say that Russia is the "center that brings together the countries in the CIS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and ODKB." DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT MEETS WITH NATO OFFICIAL
President Askar Akaev met with Jean Fournet, NATO assistant secretary-general for public diplomacy, on 26 April to discuss Kyrgyz-NATO cooperation, Kyrgyz Television reported the same day. The discussion focused on joint scientific projects, with Akaev pointing to the successes of the Great Silk Road program to provide high-speed Internet access to educational and scientific institutions. The two noted that the next stage of cooperation will involve measures to intensify the struggle against terrorism, akipress.org reported. DK

TURKMEN MINISTER GETS 25 YEARS
Poran Berdiyev, former Turkmen interior minister and chairman of the National Security Committee, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison, Turkmen opposition site gundogar.org reported on 26 April. The report did not provide information on the exact charges against Berdiyev, who fell from favor in September 2002 in the wake of a failure to meet cotton-harvest targets. DK

PROSECUTOR CONDEMNS MASSIVE CORRUPTION IN TURKMEN EDUCATION SYSTEM
Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atadjanova announced that an investigation has uncovered evidence of massive corruption in the country's educational system, RIA-Novosti reported on 23 April. The announcement came after a 22 April cabinet meeting in which President Saparmurat Niyazov sacked the education minister and his deputies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2004). Atadjanova said that in one kindergarten, the director has been collecting the salaries of 36 nonexistent employees, pocketing $208,000 over a five-year period. Several criminal cases have been opened. DK

ANTITERROR OFFICIAL BLAMES 'ISLAMISTS' FOR UZBEK VIOLENCE
Vyacheslav Kasymov, the head of the Regional Antiterrorist Structure's (RATS) executive committee within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, said on 26 April that radical Islamists were behind the violence in Uzbekistan on 28 March-1 April, ITAR-TASS reported on 26 April. Kasymov explained that the terrorists hoped to unleash unrest and use the opportunity to set up an Islamic caliphate. The news agency quoted Kasymov as saying, "They even rented several flats in front of the Uzbek National Security Service and Interior Ministry in order to shoot people who were leaving the buildings in panic." Kasymov delivered his remarks in Bishkek, where he met with Kyrgyz President Akaev, akipress.org reported. Akaev was quoted as saying, "The thrust of RATS' activities should be to prevent the actions of terrorist organizations." DK

EU MINISTERS AGREE TO RESUME NEGOTIATIONS ON EU CONSTITUTION
EU foreign ministers agreed in Luxembourg on 26 April to resume formal negotiations on a draft European constitution in mid-May and seek an agreement on the contentious document by mid-June, AFP reported, quoting an unnamed Irish diplomat. Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen reportedly secured his counterparts' backing to resume the so-called Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on 17 May. Ireland currently holds the rotating EU Presidency. Irish Prime Minster Bertie Ahern said at an EU summit in March that the organization hopes to reach agreement among its members by the 17-18 June summit. Eight postcommunist states are planning to join the EU on 1 May. MS

BELARUSIANS RALLY TO MARK CHORNOBYL ANNIVERSARY
About 1,000 mostly young people took part in a march and rally organized by the political opposition in Minsk on 26 April to mark the 18th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear accident, Belapan reported. Speakers at the rally urged the authorities to ban food production in the contaminated areas and restore state benefits to victims of the disaster. After the rally, police officers handed summonses to its organizers ordering them to report to a police station the next day. The organizers are likely to be punished for staging the march without official permission. JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT TO PUBLISH FOUR VOLUMES OF HIS SPEECHES
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced on 26 April that he will soon publish a four-volume collection of his public speeches, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. "Anyone will be able to see what I was saying in the mid-1990s, what topics were discussed during the formation of a union state [with Russia]," Lukashenka said. "You'll see that it was a consistent course." JM

KYIV OFFICIALS SAY EU INTEGRATION, SINGLE ECONOMIC SPACE MIGHT BE INCOMPATIBLE
Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr Chalyy said in an interview with the "Biznes" weekly on 26 April that Ukraine's main foreign-policy challenge in the near future will be the "impossibility" of combining integration in the European Union with membership of the Single Economic Space (SES) comprising Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2004), Interfax reported. Chalyy said Ukraine can continue its European-integration policy provided the SES is restricted to a free-trade area, but it cannot integrate with the EU if the SES develops into a full-fledged customs union. Meanwhile, First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov wrote in the same weekly on 26 April that Ukraine will focus not on gaining EU membership but on creating social and legal standards that will allow the country "not just to request EU entry but to decide whether it is worth joining the union," Interfax reported. JM

UKRAINIAN LAWMAKER GIVES DETAILS OF MUKACHEVE BALLOT FALSIFICATION
Anatoliy Matviyenko of the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc said on 26 April that the results of the bitterly contested mayoral election in Mukacheve on 18 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2004) were distorted by an exchange of 12 polling-station protocols when they were on their way to the city election commission after the conclusion of the ballot. Matviyenko was a member of a legislative commission that investigated the Mukacheve election controversy. According to Matviyenko, Our Ukraine candidate Viktor Baloha won the election with 19,385 votes, while rival Ernest Nuser, who was supported by the presidential administration, garnered 13,895 votes. The falsified protocols reportedly gave Nuser 17,416 votes and Baloha 12,297 votes. Our Ukraine claims to have the official copies of polling-station protocols from Mukacheve. JM

LATVIAN PRINCIPALS REPORTEDLY THREATENED OVER MINORITY-EDUCATION REFORM
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said after a meeting with some 20 principals of minority schools from across Latvia on 26 April that some of them said they were threatened with physical violence for supporting the planned minority-education reform, BNS reported. She promised the principals that the matter would be discussed with Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons. Vike-Freiberga expressed regret that a number of Russian-language media in Latvia are playing a destructive role by reporting about the reforms in a negative manner and "refusing to acknowledge any positive achievements." This is a serious problem, she said, since 70 percent of the parents of minority-school students receive their information primarily from the Russian-language media. She called for setting up working groups of teachers to gather and promote successful models and classes for the bilingual studies program. SG

ACTING LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT STAYS OUT OF PRESIDENTIAL RACE
Arturas Paulauskas declared on 26 April that he will not run for president after learning that former President Valdas Adamkus has submitted registration documents to the Central Election Commission for the presidential elections on 13 June, "Lietuvos zinios" reported on 27 April. Paulauskas said that there should not be an excessive number of candidates as this could split the vote and might help recently impeached former President Rolandas Paksas to reach the second round. Paulauskas said that he will personally support Adamkus for president, and he opposed the suggestion by other members of the New Union (Social Liberals) to nominate his temporary replacement as party head, Social Security and Labor Minister Vilija Blinkeviciute, as a presidential candidate. The number of presidential candidates increased to eight with the nomination of the editor in chief of the daily "Respublika," Vitas Tomkus. SG

POLISH PREMIER WANTS APOLOGY FOR ALLEGATIONS OF INVOLVEMENT IN 'RYWINGATE'
Prime Minister Leszek Miller said on 26 April that a court verdict earlier the same day confirmed that neither he nor his ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) had anything to do with the bribery scandal that was dubbed "Rywingate" by Polish media, Polish Television reported. Miller was commenting on the 2 1/2-year prison sentence handed down against film producer Lew Rywin, who was found guilty of fraud for soliciting a bribe of $17.5 million in 2002 from Agora, the publisher of "Gazeta Wyborcza" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 April 2004). The court found no links between Rywin's bribe offer and government officials. "I would like to hear the word 'sorry' from all those who for months were doing all they could to convince the public that the SLD, or myself, were behind this scandal," Miller said. In handing down Rywin's sentence, the court said that the social repercussions of "Rywingate" were enormous and included the downfall of Miller's cabinet. Miller, under mounting pressure within his own party, has pledged to step down on 2 May. JM

CZECH OFFICIAL SAYS NO PLANS FOR FURTHER MILITARY-POLICE DEPLOYMENT TO IRAQ
Visiting Czech Defense Minister Miroslav Kostelka said in Bucharest on 26 April that his country "is not planning to increase in any way the size of [its] forces deployed in Iraq," CTK reported. The Czech Republic has deployed 80 military police officers to Iraq, where they are training local police. Romanian Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu told journalists after talks with Kostelka that Bucharest has not received any official request from the United States to deploy more forces in Iraq. On 23 April, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell appealed to coalition forces to consider the possibility of increasing their troop numbers in Iraq. MS

CZECH RULING PARTY SHRUGS OFF FORMER PREMIER'S CALL FOR COUP
Regional branches of the ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) on 26 April dismissed a weekend appeal by former Prime Minister and ex-party Chairman Milos Zeman to topple the party's leadership and abandon the ruling coalition, CTK reported. Zeman on 25 April requested an extraordinary CSSD conference to oust his successor in both posts, Vladimir Spidla, saying all parties occasionally require "a rat extermination." Zeman also said an extraordinary congress should be convoked within three months and that the CSSD's tripartite coalition with the Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) and the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) should be terminated. He said the CSSD must implement the program on whose basis it won the 2002 elections. MS

FORMER SLOVAK PRIVATIZATION MINISTER CHARGED WITH ABUSE OF OFFICE
Former Privatization Minister Lubomir Dolgos was charged in a Bratislava court on 26 April with abuse of office dating back to activities in 1993, TASR reported. Prosecutors contend that Dolgos improperly transferred 7 billion crowns ($175 million) from a special account at the Privatization Ministry account into one at the Slovak National Property Fund (FNM). Dolgos denies the charges and blames unclear legislation. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison. MS

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES EU ACCESSION DOCUMENT
Hungarian lawmakers on 26 April overwhelmingly approved a bill on joining the European Union along with a joint political declaration of the four parliamentary parties concerning the country's EU accession, Budapest dailies reported. The accession document was approved by a vote of 339-2, while the joint political declaration, initiated by Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, received 332 votes in favor and three opposed. Opposition FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban and FIDESZ parliamentary-group leader Janos Ader were not present for the vote, instead attending local FIDESZ forums outside Budapest. Gabor Juhasz, the deputy parliamentary-group leader of the senior coalition Socialist Party, said, "There is no excuse for the two FIDESZ leaders' shameful absence," according to the index.hu news portal on 26 April. Medgyessy told reporters that the votes demonstrate that he has reached his goal of forging cooperation among parliamentary parties on EU accession matters, "Nepszabadsag" reported. FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Zoltan Pokorni countered that by joining the EU, Hungary has not reached its goals but rather "was given an opportunity that was taken away from her by the 20th century," the MTI news agency reported. MSZ

EU MINISTERS STRESS 'STANDARDS BEFORE STATUS' IN KOSOVA
During the meeting of the EU's General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in Luxembourg on 26 April, EU foreign ministers discussed recent developments in the Western Balkans, the Irish EU Presidency's official website (http://www.ue2004.ie) reported. In the preliminary conclusions of the meeting, the GAERC underscored that the EU remains firm on the policy of "standards before status" in Kosova, urging Kosovar institutions "to demonstrate their responsibility for and commitment to achieving concrete progress on the implementation of the standards." Commenting on the recent violence in the internationally administered province, the ministers said the return of displaced persons, the reconstruction of destroyed property, and the delivery of those responsible to justice must be the priorities. The EU ministers also urged "all political leaders in Kosovo, in particular the Kosovo Albanian leadership, to work closely with UNMIK and KFOR to ensure the physical security and the full protection of the rights of members of all communities in Kosovo" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 26 March, and 2 and 23 April 2004). UB

...AND BOSNIA
EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on 26 April also discussed preparations for the planned takeover of the NATO-led SFOR peacekeeping mission by EU-led forces in Bosnia, the preliminary conclusions said. The ministers recommended that the preparations be finalized before the June NATO summit in Istanbul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 April 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January and 5 March 2004). UB

CROATIA LIKELY TO BE GRANTED EU CANDIDATE STATUS IN JUNE
In an interview for the Croatian daily "Vecernij list" of 26 April, EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana said he expects Croatia to be granted EU candidate status in June. "That does not mean automatically that a specific date for the opening of negotiations will be fixed," he said. "It is important to underline that the 'Avis' is just the first step in a long process." Solana stressed, "Additional efforts are needed on all the essential issues, such as cooperation with ICTY [the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia], protection of minority rights, refugee returns, judicial reform, regional cooperation, and [the] fight against corruption" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2004). UB

SENIOR EU DIPLOMAT CALLS ON MACEDONIANS TO VOTE
In an article published in the Skopje daily "Dnevnik" and the Prishtina daily "Koha Ditore," Solana urged Macedonian citizens to cast their ballots in the 28 April presidential elections. "A turnout of less than 50 percent in the second round would mean that the elections have failed, that reforms aimed at improving the daily lives of all citizens are delayed, and that the country would suffer a setback on its way towards the EU and NATO," Solana said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 April 2004). He advised citizens "to vote for the candidate you believe is best placed to provide the necessary leadership as your country moves towards the EU, through implementation of the Framework Agreement and the Stabilization and Association Agreement." UB

MACEDONIAN JOURNALISTS UNION PROTESTS 'HUNTING' OF COLLEAGUES
The Association of Journalists in Macedonia (ZNM) on 26 April sharply condemned the four-month suspended sentence for slander given to Bitola-based journalist Mende Petkovski, "Dnevnik" reported. Petkovski quoted police sources in an article saying a judge in Bitola was driving a car without license plates. "The ZNM seriously warns the players in the game 'suing journalists.' It is more than clear that journalists are fair game in Macedonia," the ZNM said in a statement. The association announced that further protest would immediately follow the 28 April presidential elections (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2003). UB

ROMANIA, IMF REACH PRELIMINARY AGREEMENT
Finance Minister Mihai Tanasescu announced on 25 April that Romania and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have reached a preliminary agreement on a new accord, Romanian Radio reported. The agreement is to be examined by the IMF's executive board in the next few weeks. Among other things, it stipulates that economic reforms will continue and that the Petrom oil company, as well as companies engaged in gas and electricity distribution, are to be privatized. MS

FORMER ROMANIAN DEFENSE MINISTER ACQUITTED IN FRAUD TRIAL
Former Defense Minister General Victor Athanasie Stanculescu and nine other defendants were acquitted on 26 April of having defrauded the Defense Ministry in connection with the purchase of telecommunications equipment for the army during Stanculescu's term in office in 1990-91, Mediafax reported. Stanculescu and his co-defendants were put on trial in 1999, but in April 2002 a panel of three Supreme Court judges ruled that the statute of limitations applies to their case. The prosecution appealed and on 26 April an enlarged nine-judge panel at the Supreme Court upheld the earlier decision that the statute of limitations applies to the case. MS

ROMANIAN COURT UPHOLDS DETENTION OF BUSINESSMAN WHO THREATENED JOURNALISTS
A court in Miercurea-Ciuc rejected on 26 April the appeal of businessman Istvan Csibi against his arrest on 23 April, Mediafax reported. Csibi was detained after allegedly hiring three men to beat journalist Zoltan Csondy from the Hungarian-language Hargita County daily "Hargita Nepe," AP and AFP reported. Csondy was investigating Csibi's allegedly illicit business deals. Csondy was previously assaulted in December outside his apartment in Miercurea-Ciuc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003), and before that in September 2003. There have been numerous reports in the Romanian media about Csibi making threats to about a dozen people. On 26 April, eight Hargita County policemen, including the deputy chief of police, were dismissed on suspicion of protecting Csibi, and the National Anticorruption Prosecution (PNA) announced it was opening an investigation into his businesses. As Csibi was brought before a judge on 23 April, he again threatened several journalists present at the tribunal. MS

CHISINAU, TIRASPOL RESUME NEGOTIATIONS
Valerii Nesterushkin, the new Russian representative to the five-sided negotiations on the Transdniester conflict, said on 26 April that "it would be naive to believe that all problems can quickly be solved and that the conflicting sides will become friends without any lingering mutual suspicion," Infotag reported. Nesterushkin was speaking after the resumption of the negotiations in Tiraspol, following a five-month break. He said the purpose of the first meeting was to decide which of the several proposals made for Moldova's federalization are still on the agenda. Tiraspol and Chisinau are to submit their own proposals at this round of negotiations, which is slated to end in Chisinau on 27 April. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT DISCOVERS ABC'S OF LIBERALISM...
President Vladimir Voronin said on 26 April that "it is necessary to lift restrictions on economic and entrepreneurial activities" and that "the fewer the number of unjustified controls, the higher the citizen's well-being," Infotag reported. Voronin said controls lacking legal justification breed corruption and the emergence of mafias, and undermine the leadership's efforts to promote economic liberalization as well as social and economic reforms. On 25 April, Voronin voiced his discontent with the activity of the Center for Combating Economic Crime and Corruption, saying this body is not serving the purpose for which it was established. He said the center should focus on operations against corrupt structures and in improving anticorruption legislation rather than on "endless checks and inspections." MS

...CALLS FOR LIBERALIZATION OF MASS MEDIA
President Voronin on 26 April sent parliament and the government proposals for liberalizing the activity of the mass media, Infotag reported. Voronin said the parliament's Committee for Culture, Sciences, Education and Youth Activities should organize a meeting with media directors to analyze ways and methods to bring about liberalization in the media. Voronin proposed amending the Tax Code, lowering levies on advertising, and cutting the value-added tax on advertising. He said the government should examine the possibility of cutting tariffs on broadcast-relay services provided by state-owned Radiocomunicatii to radio and television stations. MS

BULGARIAN PREMIER ANNOUNCES TAX CUTS...
Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski announced on 26 April at a meeting of the National Council of the governing National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) that he is planning broad tax cuts, vsekiden.com reported. Saxecoburggotski said that from 2005 all rates of personal income tax will be cut by 2 percent on average; the highest rate of personal income tax will be reduced from 29 to 24 percent; the flat corporate tax rate will be cut by 4.5 percent to 15 percent; the minimum wage will be raised from 120 leva to 150 leva ($72 to $91); and the tax-free monthly wage will also rise from 120 leva to 130 leva. According to the prime minister, the tax cuts are made possible by the country's stable economic growth. In related news, the Bulgarian Insurers Association complained in an open letter to the Tax Agency about over-taxation; some foreign insurers have threatened to leave Bulgaria for neighboring Greece complaining of unfair treatment by the Bulgarian tax services, the "Sofia Morning News" reported. UB

...AND CONSTRUCTION OF MAJOR ENERGY AND INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS
In his speech before the NDSV National Council, Saxecoburggotski also said that the construction of a second nuclear power plant near Belene on the Danube will start this year, as will the construction of a second bridge spanning that river between Vidin in Bulgaria and Calafat in Romania, mediapool.bg reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2003 and 23 April 2004). Saxecoburggotski also said that construction will continue on two major highway projects. In related news, Finance Minister Milen Velchev said on 26 April that his ministry is prepared to give the guarantees demanded by prospective investors in the Belene nuclear power plant. According to the Energy Ministry, the potential investors include the U.S. company Westinghouse, Skoda from the Czech Republic, the French-German Framatome, and the Russian Atomstroieksport. In an interview with the private bTV, Krasimir Nikolov, an Energy Ministry expert, said the Belene plant could begin operating in 2010. UB

DEADEND POLITICS IN THE SOUTH CAUCASUS
The South Caucasus is facing a renewed threat of instability and mounting tension as the initial rewards of last year's sweeping regional transition of politics and leadership rapidly dissipate. The three states all face varying degrees of challenge and change. In Armenia, the embattled Armenian government is locked in a struggle to stave off an escalating political challenge from the opposition, with thousands of citizens taking to the streets in protest. The Georgian government that took office in January, on the other hand, is engaged in an uphill effort to regain a degree of state authority and legitimacy that was steadily lost or squandered over the past decade, a task complicated by the ongoing political standoff between Tbilisi and Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze. And in Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev, who inherited power from his father Heidar Aliyev in a flawed election in October, is seeking to augment his personal authority vis-a-vis influential holdovers from his father's presidential administration.

Recent domestic political tension in Armenia and Georgia has shown that the regional transition, despite initial optimism, was incomplete, providing neither a total break with the past nor promise for the future. The Azerbaijani model of transition was also flawed from the beginning, offering an entertaining Shakespearean drama of hereditary succession devoid of democratic trappings. In last year's elections, the leaderships in all three states resorted to possibly the most blatant falsification since independence, thereby triggering mass popular protests that, in the case of Georgia, were instrumental in bringing about regime change. By contrast, the leaderships of Azerbaijan and Armenia responded to those protests with unprecedented brutality and a level of confrontation that suggests a deeper dereliction of democracy. As each of these three states struggles to deal with the fallout from this incomplete and still tenuous transition, there is a danger that the region will remain in thrall to the closed, clan-based politics that inflicted such damage on democratization in the 1990s.

Although the Georgian model of regime change offers a welcome respite from the politics of frustration and fear that has characterized the region for so long, the transition in Georgia is by no means complete and remains far from secure. In fact, Georgia is still plagued by a state failure so profound that even the most basic achievements by the new government are touted as notable and newsworthy successes. And unlike Armenia, where the threat is directed against the ruling elite, or Azerbaijan, where the absence of legitimacy is limited to the president, the threat to Georgia is a fundamental challenge to statehood itself.

Despite the different dynamics of conflict demonstrated in these states, state institutions remain frail and democracy fragile in all three countries. That vulnerability has facilitated the emergence and entrenchment over the past decade of a dominant network of clans and quasi-legal economic cartels that, with the connivance of small ruling political elites, engage with impunity in corruption and the plunder of state assets.

This vulnerability is also reflected in the "deadend" politics of the region. Ironically, given that the Transcaucasus has historically functioned as a crossroads, politics is increasingly becoming a deadend -- a simple all-out pursuit of all-out power with political compromise rare and political power sharing nonexistent. In this way, political discourse has been replaced by a recourse to confrontation as the principal means for bringing about governmental change. And as recent events in Armenia have shown, a closed political system means the only outlet or avenue is by mass demonstration and street protest.

This rejection by regional leaderships of accommodation and compromise forms the basis for a new framework of post-Soviet politics that continues to favor the power of the pirate over the patriot. This distortion of democracy is rooted primarily in the leadership's reliance on coercion (or the threat of coercion) as the dominant political institution. But it is also increasingly ideological, as the predominance of clan-based rule, with clan leaders subordinating national interests to the clan interest, has led to a reassigning of roles based on clan, not civic, allegiance. That trend constitutes a deviation from the process of state building, as state and national identity are gradually subsumed under the more limited, shortsighted clan identity.

Whereas no threat has yet emerged to the entrenched clans in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the clans that flourished under Georgia's previous regime are being systematically replaced and sidelined in the wake of November's "Rose Revolution." With hindsight, however, it might turn out that one clan, loyal to the new leadership, has simply replaced the old one in a false dawn of democracy in Georgia.

Despite efforts to overcome the legacy of the Soviet system in which the first secretary of the Communist Party and then, in the final years of the USSR, the president wielded power in the union republics, politics in the South Caucasus are still tainted by an "all or nothing" approach to power in which state stability is invested in individual leaders rather than democratic institutions. Under the dictates of such a system, most rulers are destined to leave office either through force -- as with former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia or Azerbaijani Presidents Ayaz Mutalibov and Abulfaz Elchibey -- or through ill health, as with former Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev.

There have been important exceptions to this pattern, however, as seen in the forced retirements of Armenia's Levon Ter-Petrosian or, most recently, Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze. These exceptions fail to inspire much hope in the face of the trajectory of the increasingly retrograde states of the region, however.

Moreover, such deadend politics tends merely to reinforce a polity of the governing versus the governed, in which the role of the citizen is still limited to that of a spectator, denied both political choice and voice.

NATO DELEGATION PROMISES INCREASED PRESENCE IN AFGHANISTAN...
A high-level NATO delegation met on 26 April with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Radio Afghanistan reported. The delegation pledged that NATO will expand its presence in northern and western Afghanistan by assuming responsibility for five new Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). NATO is to expand its operations by September to coincide with the Afghan general elections, the report added. NATO currently leads the Kabul-based International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and one PRT in the northern Afghan Konduz Province (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 October 2003 and 23 January 2004). AT

...AS U.S. CALLS FOR GREATER CONTRIBUTION IN AFGHANISTAN FROM NATO MEMBERS...
U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns said in Kabul on 26 April that those members of NATO that do not contribute troops in Iraq ought to contribute more troops in Afghanistan, Radio Afghanistan reported. Burns mentioned Germany and Turkey along with Spain, which is pulling its troops from Iraq, as candidates to assist NATO with a "resource problem" in Afghanistan, the BBC reported on 26 April. "NATO needs to go faster and accelerate its build-up of troops in Afghanistan," Burns added. The road that NATO has taken in assuming its first official out-of-area role in the "Greater Middle East" has arguably been greeted unenthusiastically among member states and included little long-term preplanning. On the contrary, NATO has come -- or been drawn, as some members of the alliance view the process -- into Afghanistan through a series of seemingly arbitrary steps (for more see, "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004). AT

MADRID CONSIDERS INCREASED FORCES FOR AFGHANISTAN
The Spanish Defense Ministry is drawing up plans to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan based on requests from NATO for an increase in the number of PRTs in Afghanistan, the Madrid-based daily "El Pais" reported on 25 April. The preferred option for Spain is to increase its participation in Afghanistan by contributing a maximum of 300 personnel to Eurocorps, which is expected to take command of the ISAF from Canada in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2004), the paper reported. Eurocorps comprises Belgian, French, German, Luxembourgian, and Spanish forces. According to "El Pais," Madrid is still undecided on whether to assume responsibility for a PRT, outside of contributing troops to Kabul-based ISAF forces. AT

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PROTESTS KABUL EXECUTION
In a statement released on 26 April, the London-based NGO Amnesty International expressed "shock at the news of the first judicial execution known to have been carried out in Kabul" since the ouster of the Taliban forces in November 2001. Amnesty International urged Chairman Karzai to "declare a formal moratorium on executions" based on his 2003 assurances. The Amnesty International statement asserts that Afghanistan's criminal justice system "is currently incapable of fulfilling event the most basic standards for fair trials." The reported execution of Abdullah Shah "may have been an attempt by powerful political players to eliminate a key witness to human rights abuses," Amnesty International says. (For more on the case, see http://www.amnesty.org.) AT

U.S. MARINES INJURED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Three U.S. Marines have been injured -- one seriously -- in a blast in Oruzgan Province, Radio Afghanistan reported on 26 April. No details were immediately available. AT

IRANIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR 'STRONG' ECONOMY
President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said on 26 April that Iran needs a "powerful economy" and better use of resources to create jobs, which he termed a "sensitive and immediate concern," local news agencies reported that day. Khatami said "secure and dynamic employment" requires the use of "all the talents and potential" in Iran, including its extensive domestic market, its position and role in commercial transit, improving universities, and the "hard work and creativity of the workforce," ISNA reported. He told a gathering of "model workers" that Iran must modernize its industries, access information, and invest in the private sector. But he urged a "just" economy that assures the security of workers and investors, ISNA reported. Parliament has approved the outlines of the fourth five-year development plan, IRNA reported on 26 April. It also confirmed that Management and Planning Organization chief Mohammad Satarifar will step down and become a presidential adviser once the fourth plan bill becomes law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 April 2004). VS

TOTAL CLOSE TO IRANIAN GAS DEAL
Total SA of France might soon close a deal to develop part of Iran's offshore natural-gas reserves, "The New York Times" and Bloomberg News reported on 26 April. The deal, worth $1.2 billion, is to develop Phase 11 of the South Pars offshore field, AFP reported on 25 April, quoting Deputy Oil Minister Mehdi Mir-Moezzi. "The final negotiations are in progress, and unless there is a problem, the contract will be signed in one or two months," he said on the sidelines of a gas-export seminar in Tehran. Gas from this segment of South Pars is destined for Europe, AFP reported. Also, Iran should sign a deal in the next two weeks to export 15 million cubic meters of gas a day to the United Arab Emirates, AFP reported on 26 April, quoting Rokneddin Javadi, the head of the Iran National Gas Export Company. "Negotiations to export 1.5 billion cubic meters of gas a year to Kuwait are continuing," "Entekhab" also quoted him as saying. VS

OFFICIAL WARNS DRUGS WILL SPREAD AIDS IN IRAN
Ali Hashemi, the head of Iran's counternarcotics agency, urged a "specific program" to prevent drug addicts from spreading the HIV virus that causes AIDS by sharing syringes, ILNA reported on 26 April. There are "295,000 heroin addicts in the country, 145,000 of whom [inject], and all are vulnerable to AIDS." Hashemi said that while 3 percent of addicts using needles were HIV-positive in the year to 20 March 1999, the figure was 66 percent in the year to March 2003. Drugs smuggled in from Afghanistan "have presently become a crisis for the country," he said, adding that "80 percent of the world's narcotics are discovered by Iran." Hashemi reiterated an earlier figure of 2 million drug addicts in Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 23 April 2004). "The fourth development plan has earmarked greater resources [for] programs to prevent addiction," Hashemi said. VS

IRANIAN PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER DENOUNCES ELECTION INJUSTICES
Parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi denounced on 26 April the extensive rejection of many reformist candidacies in February's parliamentary elections and the "bunch of general remarks, insults, and calumny" made against disqualified hopefuls by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardians Council, which supervised the elections, "Iran" reported the same day. "Mr. Jannati, the fact is that...you have nothing to say. Have the courage to say [the disqualifications] were subjective and political," Karrubi said in parliament. "We shall repeat for the rest of our lives that in these elections, the rights of certain people were violated...and you must answer for it." Jannati said in a recent sermon that many of the disqualified, who included sitting legislators, were guilty of financial and moral corruption. Separately, the Executives of Construction Party has reportedly asked Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a former president, to run for the presidency in the next elections, "Aftab-i Yazd" cited an unnamed source as saying on 27 April. Rafsanjani has no plans to run "unless circumstances force him," the daily quoted his brother Mohammad Hashemi as saying. VS

U.S. OFFICIAL HINTS IRAQI SOVEREIGNTY WILL BE LIMITED AFTER 30 JUNE HANDOVER
In an interview with Reuters on 26 April, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated that because of recent attacks and insurgency in parts of Iraq, the new Iraqi government that will come into power on 30 June will have to cede partial sovereignty to coalition forces for security reasons. "For us to provide that help [in security], we have to be able to operate freely, which, in some ways, infringes on what some would call full sovereignty," Powell said. He specified that the only way the Iraqi people would achieve national elections by the end of 2004 is to cede some power for security to coalition forces. Powell also called for international support in the matter. MH

AL-ZARQAWI CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY FOR AL-BASRAH PORT ATTACKS...
According to a statement published on an Islamist website on 26 April, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist linked to Al-Qaeda who is suspected of carrying out attacks against coalition forces in Iraq, claimed responsibility for a suicide-boat attack on the Al-Basrah oil terminal on 24 April, Reuters reported. The statement was signed by al-Zarqawi and said, "We give you good tidings...your brothers with their boats targeted oil tankers in Mina Al-Amiq and Mina Al-Bakr." The oil terminal at Al-Basrah was formerly known as Mina Al-Bakr. Al-Zarqawi also warned that attacks on coalition forces will continue. MH

...AS SOUTHERN PORTS REOPEN FOR OIL EXPORTS
The ports in Al-Basrah and Khor Al-Amaya reopened on 25 April after the suicide-boat attacks on 24 April caused them to shut down, AFP reported on 26 April. Iraqi Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum said that oil exports "have been restored to their previous levels and security measures have been reinforced in collaboration with coalition forces to protect the oil installations." He added that almost 90 percent of Iraq's current oil exports of 1.6 million barrels per day transit the southern ports. MH

NEW IRAQI FLAG DESIGN PUBLISHED
The design of the new Iraqi flag was published on 26 April in the Iraqi newspaper "Al-Sabah," AP reported. The new design is a dramatic departure from the previous flag, as it is white, with two parallel blue strips across the bottom representing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with a yellow stripe in between representing Iraq's Kurdish minority. Above the stripes is a blue crescent meant to represent Islam. The old Iraqi flag had three parallel strips of red, white, and black with three green stars in the white stripe. The words "Allahu al-Akbar" were also present in the white stripe, added by Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War to represent the religious nature of the state. MH

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