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Newsline - May 14, 2004


RUSSIA DISPLEASED AT EXPULSION OF DIPLOMAT FROM SLOVAKIA...
The Russian Foreign Ministry on 13 May summoned Slovak Ambassador to Russia Augustin Cisar to protest the recent expulsion from Bratislava of a Russian diplomat, "Vremya novostei" and RIA-Novosti reported. The official reason given for the expulsion was "for activities incompatible with his status" -- a euphemism normally used to denote spying. The Russian diplomat, whose name has not been disclosed, was declared persona non grata on 12 May. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said that Slovakia's move is a departure from the previous "friendly relations" between the two countries and that Russia will take "appropriate actions," newsru.com reported on 13 May. VY

...AS REPORTS INDICATE INCREASED RUSSIAN SPY ACTIVITY IN NEW EU STATES
The British-based "Jane's Intelligence Digest" reported on 6 May that Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) has increased its activities in the Central European states that joined the EU on 1 May. "Jane's" quoted Czech counterintelligence officers as saying that more than half of the staff of the Russian Embassy in Prague are SVR covert officers. The counterintelligence officers also said that the SVR, in order to gain influence in the Czech Republic, has invested huge sums in local real estate, hotels, casinos, and entertainment complexes. According to newsru.com on 7 May, in the last year, Russia has increased its intelligence activity in the new members states. SVR spokesman Boris Labusov said on 8 May that he will not comment on "such ridiculous accusations," agentura.ru reported. VY

'FORBES' BILLIONAIRES SAY THEY'RE NOT THAT RICH...
Many of the businessmen whose names appeared in the "Forbes Russia" list of the country's 100 richest people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2004) have said the estimations of their wealth are inaccurate, "Vedomosti" reported on 13 May. LUKoil Vice President Leonid Fedun, who is reportedly worth $1.7 billion, told "Vedomosti" that the estimation, published on 13 May, is "purely virtual." The former senior managers of Gazprom, Rem Vyakherev ($1.3 billion) and Vyacheslav Sheremet ($1.2 billion), said that their fortunes are much smaller as they were forced to sell their shares for a below-market price. Aleksei Firsov, a spokesman for Sibneft, said that the "Forbes Russia" rating has "lost connection with reality." He added that the "figures are highly speculative and the method of calculation is vague." Meanwhile, "Vedomosti" also noted that the number of billionaires in the Russian list has increased from 25 to 36 since the list was first published in the U.S. edition of the magazine in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). VY

...AS MEDIA SAY LIST COULD HAVE REPERCUSSIONS...
The publication of the list could be a godsend for Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, pravda.ru commented on 13 May. Officials within the Federal Security Service and the Interior Ministry will read "Forbes Russia" with interest, NTV commented on 13 May. A billionaire who was named on the list but wished to remain anonymous told "Vedomosti" that "it was the wrong time and wrong place for publication [of the list]." VY

...BUT 'FORBES' EDITOR IS UNREPENTANT
"Forbes Russia" Editor Paul Klebnikov, speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 13 May, said that people in Russia, as in other countries, do not like to talk about their fortunes, newsru.com and utro.ru reported. "Businessmen did not disclose their operations, but freely talked about the assets of their competitors," Klebnikov said. "Forbes Russia" information is based on data obtained from associates of the named businessmen and is well verified, although the calculations are subject to market fluctuations, Klebnikov said. Meanwhile, Duma Property Committee Chairman Viktor Pleskachevskii said the "Forbes Russia" figures are basically correct, TV-Tsentr reported on 13 May. VY

AUDIT CHAMBER HEAD SAYS HE HAS CLAIMS ON ABRAMOVICH
Sergei Stepashin said on 13 May in London that his agency has financial claims against the exiled Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich, lenta.ru reported on 13 May. The claims are based on government financial investigations that will be completed by 21 May. "Afterwards, we will invite Governor Abramovich to the Audit Chamber session, if he, of course, returns from Britain," Stepashin said. VY

KHODORKOVSKII CASE READY FOR COURT
Genrikh Padva, the lawyer representing jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii, told journalists on 13 May that his defendant has signed a protocol saying that he has finished reading the 227-volume indictment against him, Interfax and lenta.ru reported. In practical terms this means that in five days the prosecution should hand the case over to the court, Padva said. He stressed that Khodorkovskii will plead not guilty on all charges and that the defense will continue to insist on his release from custody before the trial. VY

STATE BROADCASTER BUYS SHARES IN EURONEWS
The All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) announced on 13 May that it has bought a 16 percent share in EuroNews, RTR and "Kommersant-Daily" reported. The price was not disclosed. Russia is now the fourth-biggest shareholder in EuroNews after French, Spanish, and Italian public service broadcasters. The Russian version of the channel, which broadcasts to Europe, Canada, the CIS, Russia, and the Middle and Near East, was launched in 2001. The Russian-language audience in these regions is estimated to be 200 million viewers, RTR reported. VY

PUTIN ASKED TO INTERVENE IN DAM DISPUTE...
The legislature of the Republic of Khakasia adopted a resolution on 12 May asking President Vladimir Putin to intervene in its dispute with Unified Energy Systems (EES) over the Sayano-Sushensk dam and electricity complex, gazeta.ru reported the next day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 May 2004). The catalyst for the legislature's appeal was an announcement by EES Chairman Anatolii Chubais that the dam may be re-registered in Krasnoyarsk. The plant is located on the border between the two regions. If this happened, Khakasia would lose its biggest taxpayer. EES shareholders will meet on 21 May to decide whether to re-register Sayano-Shushensk. In addition, Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Andrei Sharonov announced on 13 May that EES may file an appeal with the Supreme Arbitration Court challenging an earlier decision by the Arbitration Court of the Siberian Federal District declaring the 1993 privatization of the dam illegal. JAC

...AS CONFLICT HEATS UP
EES has recently rebuffed an offering by the republic to settle the dispute. Khakasian Republic leaders signaled that they are ready to drop their legal action challenging the dam's privatization, if the EES would cut its electricity rates, "Vedomosti" reported on 12 May. EES spokesman Andrei Yegorov told the daily, "We do not see a possibility of reaching a peace agreement, because we consider the privatization of Sayano-Shushensk to have been absolutely legal." According to "The Moscow Times" on 13 May, Russian Aluminum is the dam's chief customer, using up to 70 percent of its electricity. Khakasia Republic President Aleksei Lebed is considered a close ally of Base Element head Oleg Deripaska (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 3 January 2001). Base Element owns 50 percent of Russian Aluminum. JAC

INVESTMENT HOUSE BULLISH ON RUSSIA'S LONG-TERM PROSPECTS?
J.P. Morgan has recommended that investors purchase Russian treasury bonds that will mature in 2030; Russia is one of only three countries that earned this recommendation, according to gazeta.ru on 13 May. The other countries are Mexico and Turkey. According to the website, there are two reasons for the investment house's optimism: the expected hike in Russia's credit rating by international agencies and growing world oil prices. Crude prices reached a 13-year high on 12 May. The website noted that J.P. Morgan's report did not advise investors to hold the bonds in their portfolios for 26 years, but that it was worthwhile to buy them now while they are still cheap and sell them later at a profit. JAC

BUREAUCRATS' RANKS SWELLED BY 4 PERCENT LAST YEAR
The number of civil servants at the federal, regional, and municipal level increased by 48,100 from 1 January 2003 to 1 January 2004, Interfax reported on 13 May citing the State Statistics Service. The total number as of 1 January was 1,300,500. The number does not include personnel from the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, and other law enforcement agencies. Because of the enactment of changes in the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, the number of personnel in the courts and prosecutors' offices rose sharply by 9.5 percent or 14,600. The federal executive department also experienced an increase of 3.3 percent or 14,900. JAC

GOVERNOR SAYS FEDERATION COUNCIL, STATE COUNCIL NO LONGER NEEDED
In an interview with utro.ru on 13 May, Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin Titov said that he believes that the State Council and Federation Council have outlived their usefulness. He noted that the State Duma's party of power already has a 300-plus majority, leaving the Federation Council little to do besides appoint judges and prosecutors and declare war. "When it was created, the State Council was -- and I understood this -- a 'shelter' for governors," he said. The governors had once served as senators but under the new rules of formation for the Federation Council, they had to appoint representatives instead. Titov concluded that it is not necessary to return Russia to a country of councils, but to build democracy according to an accepted pattern through the separation of representative, executive, and judicial powers. He also said that he supports the process of enlarging regions through mergers and suggested that the optimal number of regions in Russia will ultimately be linked to the reform of the government service and administrative system. "If we have [seven] federal districts, then we can divide them into three to four parts, which would be 21-28 federation subjects, or if we break them up into five parts, that would be 35." JAC

TWO MORE DEPUTY MINISTERS SACKED
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has dismissed from their posts First Deputy Minister for Property Relations Yurii Medvedev and Deputy Minister for Economic Development and Trade Mukhamed Tsikanov, Prime-TASS reported on 13 May. The Property Relations Ministry was liquidated under an earlier decree and its functions were transferred to the Ministry for Economic Development and Trade and the Federal Agency for the Administration of Federal Property. JAC

CHECHEN GOVERNMENT WANTS SLAIN LEADER'S SON TO SUCCEED...
Members of the Chechen government, the State Council (the interim legislature), and the Security Council, together with leading Muslim clerics, have appealed to President Putin to suspend the Chechen Constitution to permit Ramzan Kadyrov to run in the 5 September election for a new republican head, Reuters and the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on 13 and 14 May respectively quoting NTV. Ramzan's father Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov was killed by a bomb in Grozny on 9 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 May 2004). The constitution stipulates that candidates for the post of head of the republic must be at least 30; Ramzan Kadyrov is 27. LF

...BUT DOES HE WANT TO?
Ramzan Kadyrov for his part told NTV on 13 May the law and the Chechen Constitution do not allow him to contest the 5 September election, ITAR-TASS reported. Reuters quoted him as also telling the television station that "I would be better at doing what an elected president of the Chechen Republic tells me...but if the people ask us, we are ready. We shall do what the people tell us to do." "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 14 May quoted unnamed sources as suggesting that Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov may be elected formal head of the republic on condition that Ramzan Kadyrov is permitted to wield real power. In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 May, Dzhabrailov neither confirmed nor denied that he plans to contest the 5 September ballot. LF

WHERE IS INGUSHETIA'S PRESIDENT?
The ingushetiya.ru website drew attention on 14 May to the fact that President Murat Zyazikov left Ingushetia on 7 May. Moreover, unlike the heads of other neighboring North Caucasus republics, Zyazikov did not attend the funeral service in Grozny on 10 May for slain pro-Moscow Chechen leader Kadyrov, nor are any formal expressions of condolences to the victims of the 9 May Grozny bombing that killed Kadyrov and five others posted on the official Ingush government website (http://www.ingushetia.ru). A source within Zyazikov's administration told ingushetiya.ru, which is believed to be controlled by Zyazikov's Moscow-based rivals, the brothers Mikheil and Khamzat Gutseriev (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 9 January 2004), that Zyazikov is in Moscow. LF

ARMENIA SIGNS AGREEMENT WITH IRAN ON GAS-PIPELINE PLAN
Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisian signed a bilateral agreement with visiting Iranian Oil and Gas Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh in Yerevan on 13 May, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Armenpress reported. The agreement caps nearly a dozen years of negotiations between the two countries and follows an announcement by the Armenian government on 1 April heralding a final agreement on all outstanding issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 April 2004). Initially estimated at a cost of roughly $140 million, the 140-kilometer pipeline will reduce the Armenian dependence on Russian gas supplies by providing gas from diversified suppliers, although Russian energy giant Gazprom might acquire operational control of the Armenian portion of the pipeline. Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, on a state visit to Kyiv, has also initiated negotiations with the Ukrainian government, seeking their participation in the project. RG

POLITICAL DIALOGUE BETWEEN ARMENIAN OPPOSITION AND RULING COALITION COLLAPSES
The fragile dialogue only recently initiated between the three-party ruling coalition and the Armenian opposition bloc collapsed on 13 May, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The talks collapsed just as they were set to begin, with leaders of the Artarutiun opposition bloc and its National Accord Party partner protesting that the authorities have failed to abide by the demands of April's Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolution calling on the government to release all opposition supporters arrested for taking part in protest rallies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 2004). The resolution also demanded an end to the use of "administrative detentions" for participants in opposition demonstrations and called for the punishment of government officials guilty of "human rights abuses." RG

DATE SET FOR NEXT ROUND OF ABKHAZ-GEORGIAN TALKS
Abkhaz presidential aide Astamur Tania revealed on 13 May that negotiations between Georgian and Abkhaz officials will resume in Sukhum on 20 May, according to Interfax. The negotiations, part of a series of talks brokered by UN special envoy Heidi Tagliavini, are to be held under the auspices of the United Nations' Friends of Georgia Group, comprising France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Abkhaz leader explained that the two sides "will discuss proposals of the parties concerning establishment of an international security guarantee mechanism," adding, "Only international guarantees can prevent a rise in tensions." RG

GEORGIA TO BOLSTER SECURITY ALONG BORDER WITH RUSSIA...
The Georgian Interior Ministry's State Border Guard chief, Colonel Korneli Salia, announced on 13 May that preparations are under way to bolster customs security along the Chechen, Ingush, and Daghestani sections of the Georgian border with the Russian Federation, Interfax reported on 13 May. The Georgian security effort is aimed at expanding border control by the end of May, when the seasonal melting of snow clears a number of mountain passes and trails throughout the region. The effort is also seen as an important opportunity to expand cooperation and the sharing of intelligence between Georgian and Russian border guards. RG

...AND REASSERTS CONTROL OF GEORGIAN-TURKISH BORDER POST
In a move aimed at reasserting central control over Georgia's Adjar border with Turkey, Georgian officials named Fridon Surmanidze as the new chief of the strategic Sarp border-crossing post, Rustavi-2 reported on 13 May. The appointment is bolstered by a series of new measures empowering Tbilisi's control over the border crossing and is part of the Georgian government's broader effort to combat corruption and smuggling and to restore its control over customs tariffs and fees. The border post with Turkey was one of the more lucrative sources of funds for former Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze and was an important transit point for the illegal trafficking of narcotics and arms. RG

ABKHAZIA ANTICIPATES NEW GEORGIAN AGGRESSION
Vyacheslav Eshba, defense minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, has written to the head of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia, Major General Kazi Ashfaq Ahmed, accusing the Georgian leadership of planning to violate the protocol signed by the two sides two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January, 12 February, and 2 and 3 April 2002) by deploying additional troops to the Kodori Gorge, Apsnipress reported on 14 May. Eshba alleged that the Georgian leadership plans to destabilize the situation in the Abkhaz conflict zone by simulating an uprising in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion and then sending troops to occupy that district. He claimed weapons and portraits of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are being transported to Gali in preparation for the planned uprising. Interfax on 13 May similarly quoted Abkhaz Security Service head Givi Agrba as saying that Georgia plans to send troops to Kodori and to destabilize Gali, possibly on the eve of the 26 May celebrations to mark the anniversary of the declaration in 1918 of an independent Georgian republic. Kodori Governor Emzar Kvitsiani denied on 14 May that any further Georgian troops will be sent to Kodori, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 13 May, Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba left for his second visit to Moscow in 10 days, Caucasus Press reported. LF

UNREGISTERED KAZAKH PARTIES 'LIQUIDATED'
Four political parties that lacked official registration have been "compulsorily liquidated," "Ekspress-K" reported on 12 May. The four parties are Qazaq Ely, the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, the Azamat Party, and the People's Congress Party of Kazakhstan. According to a ruling by a court in Almaty, the parties' documents and stamps have been declared invalid. Additionally, the Justice Ministry removed the four parties from its list of organizations allowed to engage in economic activities. DK

KYRGYZ MINISTER COMMENTS ON KAZAKH TIES
Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov acknowledged in a 13 May interview with akipress.org that there are some problem areas in Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations, but he stressed that the tendency is toward increasing cooperation. Aitmatov admitted that delays have affected the implementation of some of the bilateral agreements that were signed during Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's December visit to Kazakhstan. Aitmatov attributed the delays to a need to follow formal ratification procedures within Kyrgyzstan. He noted, however, that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are considering the creation of a water and energy consortium within the framework of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization. "Close cooperation is a feature of Kyrgyz-Kazakh relations," Aitmatov said. "We value our achievements in this sphere and are planning to develop further cooperation with fraternal Kazakhstan in all areas." DK

KYRGYZ LEADER LAUDS PROGRESS IN POVERTY FIGHT...
President Akaev told a national forum on poverty reduction on 13 May that 2005 will be a crucial year for the country's National Strategy for Reducing Poverty, Kabar news agency reported the same day. The Kyrgyz president noted that he expects the percentage of people living in poverty to drop by five points in 2004, bringing the figure down to 32 percent in 2005, akipress.org reported. "We have the potential to make a decisive breakthrough in overcoming poverty," the news agency quoted Akaev as saying. Akaev went on to say that community development and microcredit programs are important weapons in the fight against poverty, and he thanked the United Nations Development Program for its help with these programs. DK

...AS MINISTRY STEPS UP CRIME FIGHT
The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry announced on 13 May that it has approved a special plan to step up crime-fighting efforts, akipress.org reported the same day. The plan includes a new law on organized crime that will be submitted to the cabinet, increased penalties for premeditated murder, efforts to attract better-qualified law-enforcement personnel, and measures to fight corruption within the Interior Ministry. On the latter count, specialists from the OSCE began a project on 7 May to evaluate the Interior Ministry and suggest strategic reforms. Rising crime has been the subject of heated discussion in Kyrgyzstan in recent months. DK

TAJIK PRESIDENT VISITS PAKISTAN
President Imomali Rakhmonov met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on 13 May, Asia-Plus Blitz reported the same day. The two leaders focused on energy-sector cooperation in their talks. Pakistani television quoted Rakhmonov as saying that they discussed the export of electricity from Tajikistan to Pakistan. A spokesman for the Tajik president said Pakistan might move to create an international consortium to finish the construction of a hydroelectric power station in Roghun, Tajikistan. At a banquet later, President Musharraf noted that political disputes have prevented South Asia and Central Asia from expanding economic cooperation, Pakistan's "The News" reported. Finally, representatives from the two countries inked eight agreements on education, tourism, drug trafficking, taxation, law-enforcement cooperation, and diplomatic visas, AFP reported. DK

50 HIV CASES IN TAJIK PRISONS
A recent study of HIV cases in Tajik prisons discovered 52 HIV-positive prisoners in three penal colonies, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 12 May. Twelve of the 52 prisoners are women. The project, which focused on the prevention of AIDS in prisons, was carried out by the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation (OSIAF) and Tajikistan's Justice Ministry with USAID financial assistance. Project coordinator Mahmud Majidov noted that research in Belarus and Ukraine has shown that keeping HIV-infected inmates in one place leads to outbreaks of the infection. Zuhro Halimova, the executive director of OSIAF, said, "We need to switch to preventive measures of fighting the disease. We should not repeat the sad fate of African countries." DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT OSTENSIBLY EASES RELIGIOUS RESTRICTIONS
President Saparmurat Niyazov signed a law and issued a decree on 13 May easing conditions for religious organizations in Turkmenistan, turkmenistan.ru reported the same day. The law abolishes criminal prosecution for violation of legislation on religious organizations. Turkmen TV reported on 13 May that corresponding changes are to be made to the Criminal Code and legislation on religious organizations. The decree nullifies a 23 March decree on the registration of religious organizations and their use of charitable donations. Skeptics remain unconvinced, however. Forum 18, a Norway-based religious-freedom organization that has reported extensively on restrictions on religious freedom in Turkmenistan, quoted religious leaders in the country as saying that "the latest apparent relaxations mark no change in the continued de facto criminalization and persecution of religious believers." DK

MINSK SEES 'POLITICAL COMPONENT' IN EXCLUDING BELARUS FROM EU NEIGHBORHOOD
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh said on 13 May that there is a "political component" to the EU's approach to the formation of an individual neighborhood concept for Belarus, Belapan reported. Savinykh was commenting on the EU's European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which was unveiled the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2004). The document says that Belarus will be able to make full use of the ENP only "when it has established a democratic form of government, following free and fair elections." The European Commission proposed that EU assistance to Belarus be strengthened in areas such as civil society, democratization, the independent media, humanitarian assistance, regional cooperation, and the alleviation of problems in the regions affected by the Chornobyl disaster. JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT WANTS TIGHTER CONTROLS ON JOB-ASSIGNMENT POLICY
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has called for tightening control over compulsory job assignments for university graduates, a practice dating back to the Soviet era, Belapan reported on 13 May. "We spend public funds on training youths, but they start businesses or go abroad [upon graduation]," the presidential press office quoted Lukashenka as saying at a 12 May governmental conference on higher education. "[If you] have finished a university and the state has maintained you, be ready to have a job assigned by the government for the next five years and maybe beyond." Lukashenka reportedly warned that graduates who refuse to accept jobs offered by the government will face penalties; in particular, having their university diplomas annulled. JM

OSCE OFFICE IN MINSK SLAMS STATE TV DOCUMENTARY AS SLANDEROUS
Eberhard Heyken, head of the OSCE Office in Minsk, has criticized a recent documentary shown on Belarusian Television as the "open slander of key opposition politicians," Belapan reported on 13 May. The documentary, shown on 11 May and again on 13 May, was titled "The Road to Nowhere" and linked prominent opposition figures to images of civil unrest and fascism during World War II. "I consider this as inappropriate political programming that clearly falls below the standards of free and unbiased representation of political pluralism," Ambassador Heyken said. "During the program, the competence, credibility, honor, and sanity of key figures was openly cast into doubt." The OSCE Office interpreted the content of the program as a clear attempt to undermine the political opposition in the run-up to this fall's parliamentary election. JM

BELARUSIAN LEGISLATURE RATIFIES ACCORD ON DRUZHBA-ADRIA OIL-PIPELINE LINK
The Chamber of Representatives on 13 May ratified an agreement providing for linking the Druzhba and Adria oil pipelines, Belapan reported. The agreement -- signed by Belarus, Croatia, Hungary, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine in December 2002 in Zagreb -- provides for the integration of the national oil pipelines to connect Russian oil fields with the Adriatic Sea. The new oil route is expected to transport up to 15 million tons of crude oil annually. JM

UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER BECOMES ACADEMICIAN...
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has become a member of the Presidium of Ukraine's National Academy of Sciences (NANU), Interfax reported on 13 May, quoting the government press service. NANU head Borys Paton reportedly wrote in a letter to Yanukovych that the NANU made him a Presidium member in order to "strengthen cooperation with state-authority bodies." JM

...AS HIS SPOKESWOMAN REPRIMANDS MEDIA FOR RECALLING YANUKOVYCH'S CONVICTIONS
Hanna Herman, newly appointed spokeswoman of the prime minister, told journalists on 13 May that recent reports by some media recalling Yanukovych's two convictions are intended to discredit him as a presidential candidate, the "Ukrayinska pravda" (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) website reported. "Someone is very eager to discredit the leading aspirant to the top post in our state," Herman said. Herman revealed that Yanukovych in 1967 was sentenced to three years in a colony for juveniles -- where he served only a part of his term -- and in 1970 to two years in prison. Herman noted that in 1978 the Donetsk Oblast Court annulled both convictions. "Thus, Viktor Yanukovych was unfoundedly called to criminal responsibility on two occasions -- in 1967 and 1970 -- and unlawfully convicted for the crimes in which he was not involved," Herman said. She did not name those crimes. JM

TWO UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY GROUPS MERGE
The deputy groups Democratic Initiatives and People's Power have merged to form a caucus called Democratic Initiatives-People's Power, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) reported on 14 May, quoting Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. The newly established caucus has 30 deputies. Lytvyn also said the pro-government caucus Ukraine's Regions expelled three deputies who on 12 May supported the opposition-sponsored resolution on the controversial mayoral election in Mukacheve (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 2004). JM

OSCE SAYS BOSNIAN AUTHORITIES MUST IMPROVE COOPERATION WITH THE HAGUE
Robert Beecroft, who heads the OSCE mission to Bosnia, said in Vienna on 13 May that the Republika Srpska's lack of cooperation with the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal could prove an obstacle to Bosnia's entry into NATO's Partnership for Peace program, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Beecroft also expressed his dissatisfaction with the fact that Bosnia lost a World Bank credit for education reforms due to "obstruction" in the parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 May 2003). UB

MONTENEGRIN PRESIDENT SAYS INDEPENDENCE WOULD SPEED UP EU INTEGRATION
President Filip Vujanovic said on 13 May that Montenegro could achieve its goal of EU membership much more quickly if it were independent, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Vujanovic said he disagrees with suggestions by Western representatives that Montenegrin independence would destabilize the Balkans. He added that independence must be achieved as soon as possible because the state union between Serbia and Montenegro is not functioning and is too expensive. For Vujanovic, the best solution for both countries would be peaceful dissolution similar to the 1993 Czech-Slovak partition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004 and RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 February and 27 June 2003). UB

SERBIAN PREMIER CONDEMNS RACIST ABUSE OF ROMA
Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on 13 May sharply condemned any racist or nationalist abuse directed at the country's Romany minority, saying such offenses are contradict the "domestic tradition and culture," Tanjug reported. During a meeting with Vitomir Mihajlovic, who heads the National Council Roma, Kostunica said state institutions and all of society must avoid such offenses, and, if they are committed, they must be punished by the authorities. UB

UNMIK HEAD HOSPITALIZED IN FRANCE
Harri Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), was hospitalized in Strasbourg on 13 May for exhaustion, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Holkeri will reportedly remain in the hospital for further examination. Holkeri, a former Finnish foreign minister, was participating in a Council of Europe session on the March violence in Kosova; earlier this week, he visited Washington and New York (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 11 and 12 May 2004). UB

MACEDONIAN PRIME MINISTER-DESIGNATE VOWS NO MAJOR CHANGES
Interior Minister Hari Kostov, who was nominated by the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM), to succeed newly elected Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski in the prime minister's post, said on 13 May that he will not change the number of ministries in his government, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Kostov added that consultations are under way on the distribution of leading positions among the three coalition partners: the SDSM, the Liberal Democrats, and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration. The prime minister-designate said his government will focus on the implementation of the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement and the improvement of interethnic relations, Euro-Atlantic integration, and the reduction of poverty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2004). UB

NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL PRAISES ROMANIA'S ROLE IN THE ALLIANCE
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer during his address to the Romanian parliament's common session on 13 May praised Romania's contribution to the Atlantic alliance, Romanian media reported. He said that due to its geographical position, Romania can significantly contribute to the region's stability and development. De Hoop Scheffer also praised Romania's contribution to peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans. After his meeting with Prime Minister Adrian Nastase the same day, de Hoop Scheffer said NATO's expansion last month was strategic as well as moral, as it "erased forever division lines from the Cold War period." Nastase said Romania seeks to be a "responsible and extremely serious member" that intends to fulfill all its duties and participate in all missions and operations. De Hoop Scheffer also met with President Ion Iliescu, who decorated him with the Romanian Star for his "important contribution" to Romania's NATO-accession efforts. ZsM

ROMANIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES WHITE BOOK ON SECURITY AND DEFENSE
Parliament's common session on 13 May approved a white book on national security and defense that sets objectives, measures, and actions of state institutions and will serve as the basis of the country's military strategy, Mediafax reported. The document was adopted by a vote of 243-1, with 46 members of the Greater Romania Party (PRM) abstaining. PRM Deputy Tudor Marcu argued that the document should have been adopted three months from the government's setup late in 2000, and should have been a prognosis, not an account of past activities. Hungarian Democratic Federation in Romania Senator Karoly Szabo complained that the document should have been updated following Romania's NATO accession. ZsM

ROMANIA SAYS UKRAINIAN CANAL PROJECT WILL DAMAGE DANUBE DELTA
Romania has appealed to the secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention) to protest Ukraine's beginning of construction on 11 May of a deep-water canal near the Romania-Ukraine border, Mediafax reported, citing a 13 May Foreign Ministry press release. Romania and environmental organizations fear that 163-kilometer canal, which will run through the Bystraya estuary and provide Ukraine with an additional outlet to the Black Sea, will damage Europe's largest delta, the Danube Delta, international media reported. The Bern Convention has announced that it intends to organize a field trip to investigate the situation by July. The delta is an internationally protected nature reserve. ZsM

EU UNVEILS DETAILS OF 'EUROPEAN NEIGHBORHOOD POLICY'
The European Commission on 12 May made public a strategy document outlining ways of building closer ties between the EU and its "new neighbors" to the east and south. The paper -- which must still be formally approved at the EU's summit in June -- says the bloc is ready to proceed quickly with Ukraine, Moldova, and a number of Mediterranean countries. It also sees no hope of a closer relationship for Belarus as long as its present government stays in power.

The commission paper builds on a concept first unveiled nearly a year ago. Although it has undergone some changes, the premise of the strategy remains that those neighbors willing to share EU values and respect its vital interests will be offered closer links.

Presenting the paper on 12 May, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen promised political dialogue, economic cooperation, and possible eventual integration, as well as wide-ranging aid for infrastructure projects, research, environmental projects, and the like under the so-called European Neighborhood Policy.

Verheugen summed up the EU's goals as follows: "The final objective is very clear. As [Commission President] Romano Prodi has put it earlier, we want to create a 'ring of friends.' We want to create a neighborhood in which we can develop the same level of political and economic stability that we have already achieved in the enlarged European Union. This is strategically in our interest, and we believe it is also in the interest of all our neighbors."

The paper envisages "actions plans" for the quick development of ties with seven front-runners -- Ukraine, Moldova, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia.

The European Commission says the seven were picked because they already have in place functioning partnership agreements with the EU.

The action plans will be made public in early July, presumably after the EU's June summit gives the commission strategy its formal approval. Officials say no changes are expected from the current wording.

One country conspicuous in its absence from EU ambitions for closer ties is Belarus. Verheugen said that country's authoritarian leadership has itself to blame for its "isolation."

"The picture is -- I regret to say that -- very gloomy. So far, we don't have cooperation with the government of that country. We don't have contractual relations. There is no dialogue at all. And I think in the present situation there is no way to discuss with Belarus an action plan," Verheugen said. "We are still at square number one. What we have to do is to support initiatives which would finally lead to political reform and political change in Belarus."

The EU does not have many options. Verheugen said the bloc is trying to help democratic forces in Belarusian civil society find their voice and become more visible. Verheugen said he remains "absolutely without illusions." However, he added, once the "conditions are right," Belarus will be welcomed as a partner country in the EU's new neighborhood project.

Verheugen also rejected suggestions that the Polish government does not support the commission's tough stance vis-a-vis neighboring Belarus. He said the commission is in constant contact with Warsaw and that "there is no contradiction."

Russia will not receive its own action plan in July, but Verheugen said this is simply because the EU-Russia relationship has already developed substantially.

Verheugen also said the commission supports the inclusion of the three South Caucasus countries in the new neighbors initiative.

"Furthermore, and that is new, we suggest in our strategy paper of today that the countries of the Southern Caucasus -- Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia -- should be included," Verheugen said. "This is in the view of the commission a necessary and important reaction addressing recent developments in that part of Europe and responding to the clear request which we have got from the leaders of those countries."

The commissioner, however, poured cold water on the ambitions of the leaders of EU partner countries who have hoped the new neighborhood program could be a stepping-stone toward accession.

Verheugen appeared to contradict suggestions made in recent years by Prodi and other senior EU officials that once the present round of enlargement is over, a further debate on the "borders of Europe" will follow. This debate is necessary to decide which countries have a right to membership, as the bloc's founding treaty stipulates all "European countries" can join.

Verheugen ruled out such a debate for the foreseeable future, however, saying the EU does not "foresee a debate about the borders of Europe." He added: "For the time being, what we can do is we can clearly define the borders of the European Union. For the time being, it is obvious that for a relatively long time to come, the western border of the former Soviet Union will be the eastern border of the European Union, with the exception of the Baltic countries, which are already members of the EU."

He said the Balkan countries, headed by Croatia, will all be absorbed.

Verheugen said Turkey's ambitions are well known, too, and its membership remains possible. The commission will decide in the fall whether to launch accession talks with Ankara.

Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.

AFGHAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE QUESTIONS KARZAI'S LEGITIMACY
Sayyed Eshaq Gailani, a presidential candidate from Afghanistan's National Unity Movement, has said that Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's administration will not be legitimate beyond June, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 13 May. Gailani said that according to the December 2001 Bonn agreement, the administration's mandate expires in June and will not be legal after that date. Gailani suggested that a loya jirga (grand assembly) be held to clarify situation. The loya jirga could either allow Karzai to stay in power or appoint a replacement, Gailani said. The Bonn agreement calls for Afghan elections to be held in June, but that date has since been pushed to September. AT

AFGHAN POLITICAL PARTY IS REGISTERED UNDER NEW NAME
A political party calling itself the Afghan Labor and Development Party has officially been registered with the Justice Ministry, Afghanistan Television reported on 13 May. According to an unidentified spokesman for the party, the Afghan Labor and Development Party is the new name for National Reconciliation Party. AT

JOINT FRANCO-GERMAN BRIGADE TO ASSUME COMMAND OF ISAF
France and Germany confirmed on 13 May that a joint brigade from the two countries will assume command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, AFP reported. According to a joint Franco-German declaration, Paris and Berlin "will participate, as part of the general staff of the European Corps [Eurocorps], in commanding" the ISAF as of August. Canada currently commands the ISAF. It is not clear from the declaration what relationship Eurocorps will have with NATO. AT

AFGHAN SECURITY FORCES FREE IRANIAN HOSTAGES
Security forces in western Afghanistan's Herat Province on 13 May freed three Iranian nationals who were kidnapped some 11 months ago, Radio Afghanistan reported. The Iranians were reportedly taken hostage by militiamen loyal to commander Amanullah, a local warlord who operates in the province's Shindand District. The Iranians were apparently kidnapped from the Iranian city of Torbat-e Jam in order to collect a ransom. AT

IRANIAN AMBASSADOR VOWS TO PROVIDE UN WITH FULL REPORT ON NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES SOON
Iran's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Piruz Husseini, said on 13 May the country will "very soon" provide the UN nuclear watchdog with a full report on its nuclear activities in the run-up to a key IAEA meeting in June, Reuters reported. Husseini said that Iran will answer any questions the IAEA might have regarding the report, which Iran earlier promised by mid-May, IRNA reported. The IAEA governing board is to give its opinion on Iran's nuclear program on 14 June. Meanwhile, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton said in Washington on 13 May that Libya, which recently renounced its unconventional arms program, has stated it will not trade arms with states possibly linked to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, including Iran, Reuters reported the same day. In Moscow on 13 May, Russian Atomic Energy Agency Director Aleksandr Rumyantsev said that Russia will complete construction of the nuclear plant it is helping Iran build in Bushehr, regardless of U.S. calls for Russia to abandon its nuclear cooperation with Iran, Mehr News Agency reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2004). VS

TURKEY WARNS IRANIAN AIRPORT CLOSURE MIGHT AFFECT BUSINESS RELATIONS
Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Namik Tan said in Ankara on 12 May that the sudden closure of Tehran's new airport, which the Turkish-led consortium Tepe-Akfen-Vie was contracted to run, could harm business ties with Iran, bakutoday.net reported on 13 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 12 May 2004). The national carrier Iran Air was recently tasked with operating the airport, which remains closed. Tan called the airport deal "one of the most important business projects undertaken by Turkish companies in Iran," and warned that the impasse might harm bilateral "economic ties," bakutoday.net reported. Meanwhile, Ahmad Tavakkoli, a conservative member-elect to Iran's next parliament, said on 13 May that "the least we expect of [President Mohammad] Khatami is that he dismiss Ahmad Khorram," the transport minister tasked with the airport project, ISNA reported the same day. He said no minister should remain in office "for even an hour" when faced with "such an embarrassing disaster." VS

IRANIAN COURT SAYS 55 ARRESTED ON 'POLITICAL' CHARGES IN ONE MONTH
The Tehran public prosecutor's office has stated that it arrested 55 people in the monthlong period preceding 19 April for alleged "political and security actions against the system," "Iran" reported on 13 May, citing the prosecutor's office. A man was arrested because the contents of a magazine he published allegedly rejected Islamic teachings, discussed contacts with ghosts, and insulted The Koran, according to "Iran." Two other people were arrested for "embezzlement and deceit" pertaining to their alleged use of forged papers identifying them as agents of the Intelligence Ministry and of the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "Iran" reported. Judicial authorities also arrested six individuals in Tehran and the northwestern cities of Khoy and Orumieh over the month on charges of fomenting ethnic discord and promoting separatism, as well as members of a group allegedly planning to bomb parts of Tehran, "Iran" reported. VS

REGIONAL PARLIAMENTARIANS WANT SADDAM HUSSEIN ON TRIAL
Parliamentary speakers from six states bordering Iraq agreed during their two-day meeting in Amman, Jordan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2004), to a statement proposed by Iran that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein must be prosecuted, Iranian parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi told IRNA on 13 May. Karrubi said Hussein is the "source of all existing problems in Iraq." He added that the statement also calls for free elections, the transfer of power, and an end to unspecified "terrorist operations." In addition, participants in the conference "agreed on an end to the occupation of Iraq and the departure of invading forces," Karrubi said. During a meeting on 13 May with Turkish parliamentary speaker Bulent Arinc, Karrubi called for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that "otherwise its negative effects will affect all countries in the region," IRNA reported. The news agency also quoted Karrubi as saying that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "have caused insecurity in the region and the world." VS

U.S. BATTLES IRAQI CLERIC'S FORCES IN AL-NAJAF
U.S. soldiers battled militiamen from radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army in the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf on 14 May, international media reported. Fighting centered around the 1920 Revolution Square, Al-Jazeera television reported. Meanwhile, Western news agencies reported that fighting had moved into the holy city's immense cemetery. Fighting was also seen on the road connecting Al-Najaf to nearby Al-Kufah, AP reported. Al-Sadr remains holed up in Al-Najaf but has traveled to Al-Kufah on the past three Fridays to deliver Friday prayer sermons there. Fighting also occurred near the Imam Ali shrine in Al-Najaf on 14 May. The shrine is considered one of the most revered sites for Shi'a Muslims. A protest organized by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to denounce the militia's presence in the city was canceled because of the fighting (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 13 May 2004). Al-Sadr associate Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji denied to Al-Arabiyah on 13 May that Iraqis want the militant group to leave the city, saying, "These reports are incorrect and unfounded." KR

FORMER IRAQI GENERAL REPORTEDLY MEDIATING SITUATION IN KARBALA
Former Iraqi Major General Shakir Abd al-Amir has reportedly been asked to mediate the situation in the Shi'a holy city of Karbala between coalition forces and Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah television reported on 13 May. Abd al-Amir told the news channel that political parties, religious, and tribal leaders asked him to arrange a meeting on 14 May between U.S. and Polish forces and Al-Mahdi militiamen. Karbala has seen intense fighting this week between the renegade army and coalition forces. Meanwhile, Iraqi National Congress (INC) newspaper "Al-Mu'tamar" reported on 12 May that residents in Karbala say foreign fighters are participating in the attacks against coalition forces in the city. The newspaper cited an unnamed source at the Al-Husayni Hospital who said a Syrian was among those wounded in the fighting this week. Another resident reported seeing some 30 fighters dressed in Al-Mahdi uniforms walking the streets of Karbala and speaking in a non-Iraqi Arabic dialect. "Al-Mu'tamar" claimed that the Arab fighters came to Karbala from Al-Fallujah after a truce took hold there last week (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 May 2004). KR

AL-QAEDA CLAIMS TO BE AIDING IRAQI INSURGENCY
The top Al-Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, reportedly posted a message on Islamic websites on 14 May claiming that his group is aiding Muslim militants in Iraq, Reuters reported. "In our jihad in the Arabian peninsula, we are serving the Iraqi cause and helping the mujahedin there who we are in constant contact with and are supporting," he said in a statement. "We seek to confuse the enemy, keep it occupied in its rear bases and foil its future plans along with its Arab allies and despots." The statement, which has not been verified, also claims that Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants have been "laying low" for a long time, waiting to restart their fight. The militant group Ansar Al-Islam was struck by U.S. and peshmerga forces in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Media reports from Iraq over the past year have said that Ansar militants dispersed throughout Iraq and regrouped in the subsequent months. KR

PARTY ASKS UN ENVOY TO IRAQ TO NAME TURKOMAN VICE PRESIDENT
The deputy head of the Iraqi Turkoman National Party, Jamal Shan, has sent a letter to UN special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi asking that a Turkoman be named to the seat of vice president and deputy prime minister, "Turkomaneli" reported on 13 May. Shan urged the UN adviser in the letter to recognize the Turkomans as an essential element in the formation of any new Iraqi government. The weekly also reported on 13 May that the central committee of the Turkomaneli Party sent a letter to Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer on 10 May calling for an expansion of the Iraqi Governing Council to 100 members. Twenty-five Iraqis currently sit on the council. The group contended in the letter that an expansion of the council would help reflect the population of ethnic groups and sects. It also called for membership of the Governing Council to be contingent on elections within "major parties that have well-established political foundations," apparently rather than through direct national elections. KR

U.S. RELEASES HUNDREDS OF PRISONERS FROM ABU GHURAYB
The U.S. military released dozens of Iraqi detainees from the Abu Ghurayb prison on 14 May, international media reported. U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told reporters at a 12 May news briefing that 315 detainees are scheduled for release on 14 May and another unspecified number will be released on 21 May. Reuters reported on 14 May that some 3,800 detainees are housed at Abu Ghurayb, according to figures acquired earlier this week. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the prison on 13 May as part of a surprise visit to Iraq, international media reported. KR

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