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Newsline - May 18, 2004

Speaking to journalists after his talks in the Kremlin with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, President Vladimir Putin said on 17 May that Iran is "our steady partner of long standing" and that relations between the two countries are developing in all directions, RTR,, and other Russian media reported. Putin also noted that trade between the two countries has grown since 2002 by 70 percent and reached $1.37 billion in 2003. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart, said that they discussed the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the Caspian region. Lavrov also announced that Putin has accepted an invitation to visit Tehran, and that Putin will visit Tehran later this year both for bilateral talks and to attend a summit of the Caspian states, RIA-Novosti reported. VY

"While Washington included Tehran in the 'axis of evil,' Moscow sees it as an important strategic partner, relations with which are a crucial aspect of Russian national security," commented. Moscow not only doesn't want to break off relations with Tehran, but is striving to raise them to a new level. At the same time, Moscow understands that its ties with Tehran irritate Washington and does not want to upset its relations with the United States either, the website noted. VY

Speaking to journalists in Moscow, Foreign Minister Lavrov said on 17 May that after the 30 June transfer of power in Iraq, Russia will not send troops there, even if the new Iraqi government asks for them, RIA-Novosti reported. "If the new [Iraqi] government turns to us with such a request, I doubt that the security situation will allow us to give a positive answer," he said. Lavrov added that Russia believes an Iraqi government must be put together transparently, and must include political forces now considered the opposition, RIA-Novosti reported. He added that Moscow is concerned that the increase in violence in Iraq is making a political settlement difficult. VY

Two workers of the Russian energy company Interenergoservis taken hostage in Iraq on 10 May by insurgents were released in a southern suburb of Baghdad and delivered to the Russian Embassy, RTR and ORT reported. In a live interview from Baghdad, the two specialists refused to identify their abductors but told RTR they were kidnapped "by mistake, as Iraqis have no hostile feelings towards Russia." A third contract worker was killed in the abduction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 May 2004). On 18 May, a charter flight evacuated one of the two men, as well as 109 other Interenergoservis workers to Moscow, ITAR-TASS reported. The other freed hostage, Andrei Meshcheryakov, decided to continue working in Iraq. Over two hundred other Interenergoservis employees have decided to stay in Iraq, RTR reported. VY

At the trial in Doha, Qatar, of two Russian secret-services agents accused in the killing of former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 May 2004), the Qatari court heard on 17 May the testimony of two witnesses who gave an alibi for the defendants, and RBK reported. The witnesses, a Qatari citizen and another local resident, testified that on the day of the killing, 13 February, they saw the Russians far away from the place where Yandarbiev was killed. According to the defendant's lawyer, Ilya Levitov, the court refused to hear the third witness, the Russian consul in Qatar, Maksim Maksimov. The next court session is scheduled for 25 May. VY

Speaking at a cabinet meeting on 17 May, acting Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov told President Putin that industrial-production growth increased in April after slowing in March, increasing 0.7-0.8 percent from March to April, ITAR-TASS reported. He claimed this was not due to the rise in oil prices but "in industries requiring a high level of processing." Consumer prices in the first quarter of 2004 rose 4.6 percent and the annual rate of inflation will not exceed 10 percent, Zhukov added, and real incomes grew by 13.2 percent between January and April this year. VY

The majority of Russians spend most of their income buying food, according to a poll carried out by ROMIR-Monitoring among 1,500 respondents on 13 May and published on its website ( In the poll, 32 percent of respondents said that they spend half their monthly income on food, 28 percent spend two-thirds of their income, and 27 percent spend almost all their income on food. Only 11 percent of respondents said they spent less than half the money they earned on food. VY

The Saratov Oblast prosecutor's office filed criminal charges against Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov on 17 May, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2004). Ayatskov is suspected of exceeding the authority of his office and abuse of office. He gave testimony at the prosecutor's office prior to the filing of charges. Ayatskov announced that he will go on vacation in order to avoid being accused of trying to influence the investigations. Ayatskov allegedly authorized the payment of 70 million rubles ($2.4 million) from the oblast budget in 1998 to cover customs duties that a local company, Agroton, was unable to pay in order to take possession of some imported harvesters, RFE/RL's Saratov correspondent reported. The company had been hit by the fall in the ruble during the financial crisis that year. According to the oblast prosecutor, Anatolii Bondar, other decisions by Ayatskov, such as the granting of trade privileges to a firm owned by his brother, are the focus of a criminal investigation. JAC

Ayatskov is up for re-election for his third term next year, and according to the "Russian Regional Report" on 11 May, the two most likely contenders are Ayatskov and his former deputy and State Duma Deputy Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin. According to the report, Volodin carried out a coup in the regional branch of Unified Russia, the pro-Kremlin party, "snatching it out from the governor's control." As a result, the report predicted that Ayatskov, if he were to seek a third term, would have to oppose Unified Russia. JAC

According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 May, Ayatskov told a press conference in Saratov that the case against him may have been launched to benefit either prosecutor Bondar himself, if he intends to take part in the gubernatorial election next spring, or the person whom he will back in the election. In Chita Oblast, the local prosecutor opened a criminal case against incumbent Governor Vladimir Loginov on the eve of the March gubernatorial elections there; however, Loginov managed to be re-elected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 April 2004). In Tver Oblast, former Governor Vladimir Platov was less fortunate. He failed to make it to the second round and his case was recently sent to court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2004). JAC

The Moscow city election commission has refused to register an initiative group that wanted to hold a referendum on the question of prolonging the presidential term to 10 years, reported on 17 May. According to the commission, the last presidential election has not formally ended until certification of the race's final results have been presented to both legislative chambers, which must happen before 24 June. The website noted that this means that the initiative group may be able to start collecting signatures for such a referendum later. The youth movement For Stability and Order is behind the initiative group, according to the website. The movement's leader, Aleksandr Kharitonov, said in March that "youth want predictability and the succession of power, to study peacefully, and not to [worry] whether Russia will return to its communist past." In order for a referendum to be held, the group would not only have to be registered but must deliver 2 million valid signatures to the election commission. JAC

Deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov is conducting negotiations for the unification of Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs with Krasnoyarsk Krai in 2004-05, an unidentified source in the presidential administration told "Vedomosti" on 18 May. The previous day, Leonid Drachevskii, presidential envoy to the Siberian Federal District, told reporters that the unification of those regions is only "a matter of time." He said that "it is not important whether it will be in a year or two years." Meanwhile, Evenk Governor Boris Zolotarev has not given up his opposition to the effort (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 April 2002). His region would lose direct federal subsidies -- it received around 800 million rubles ($28 million) in subsidies this year. Anton Siluanov, director of the department for interbudgetary relations at the Finance Ministry, told the daily that the ministry has already suggested that the government introduce amendments to the Budget Code that would guarantee the same level of federal financial support for a period of up to three years to regions that merge. JAC

In a profile of Surkov published on on 14 May, controversial philosopher/analyst Aleksandr Dugin noted that rumors of Surkov's unavoidable dismissal were dispelled when Putin reappointed Surkov as deputy head of the presidential administration. Dugin noted that although Surkov was initially aligned with the so-called Family, he made an early choice to side with Putin, and "as a top manager of Yeltsinism he began to diligently dismantle the [Yeltsin] system by its screws." Surkov oversaw the liquidation of political parties, the State Duma, and any kind of political life. At the end of the profile, Dugin asked what is left for the Kremlin's "golden boy" to liquidate during Putin's second term? "The negative tasks through demolition of the president's worthless political construction have been practically completed," Dugin concluded. JAC

In an interview with "Russkii Fokus," No. 16, Yevgenii Yasin, former economy minister and research director of the Higher School of Economics, described the results of a survey he took of 150 professional experts on the Russian government's programs during President Putin's first term. The scale was +5 for the highest mark, -5 for bad, and 0 for stalled reforms. The tax reform scored the highest mark with +2.5. Reform of Gazprom and the housing and public-utilities sector received a zero mark. Health-care reform received a minus mark, and military reform scored the lowest. JAC

In his statement claiming responsibility for the 9 May bomb blast in Grozny that killed six people, including pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2004), radical field commander Shamil Basaev indirectly threatened to kill Russian Prime Minister Fradkov or Russian President Putin, noted on 18 May. "We are interested [to see] who will be appointed premier of Russia, Katya or Masha [the names of President Putin's two daughters], if, by the mercy of Allah, we carry out the special operation Moska-2 successfully," Basaev said. Kadyrov's youngest son, Ramzan, was named Chechen first deputy prime minister after his death (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 May 2004). Also on 17 May, Russian and Chechen officials alike queried the veracity of Basaev's claim to have killed Kadyrov. ITAR-TASS and Interfax quoted Yurii Rozhin, who heads the Chechen Department at the Federal Security Service (FSB), as saying that possibility is only one of several being investigated. Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev and former Grozny Mayor Bislan Gantemirov both dismissed Basaev's claim of responsibility for Kadyrov's death as unsubstantiated boasting. LF

Former Colonel Yurii Budanov, who was sentenced in July to 10 years' imprisonment for the murder in March 2000 of a young Chechen woman, has submitted a request for pardon, his lawyer told Interfax on 17 May. Budanov twice unsuccessfully appealed his sentence to the Russian Supreme Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 October 2003 and 30 March 2004). LF

Robert Kocharian met on 14 May with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the latter's residence in Novo Ogarevo near Moscow, Russian media reported on 15 May. Topics discussed during their hour-long talk included the situation in the South Caucasus, the threat of terrorism, and various aspects of bilateral relations. Putin noted that mutual trade increased by 34 percent in 2003, but Kocharian stressed that economic cooperation still lags behind military cooperation, according to "Rossiiskaya gazeta." While the two presidents affirmed that they see eye to eye on most issues, commentators noted that Moscow is not pleased by the signing last week of an agreement on the export to Armenia of Russian natural gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May 2004). In addition, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 May suggested that Kocharian would be asked to justify his country's increasingly close military cooperation with NATO and the United States. LF

Igor Ivanov flew to Tbilisi on 17 May for talks with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, and National Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili, Georgian and Russian media reported. The talks focused on various aspects of bilateral relations and the Abkhaz conflict, in particular the security situation in the Abkhaz conflict zone. The Abkhaz authorities have recently deployed additional police to the two southern districts of Gali and Ochamchira in anticipation of a possible attempt by the Georgian authorities to destabilize the situation there. ITAR-TASS on 17 quoted Zhvania as saying, "We are moving toward mapping out a unified stance on the Abkhaz conflict and on settling other outstanding issues." The independent television station Rustavi-2 on 18 May quoted Russian ambassador to Georgia Vladimir Chkhikvishvili as saying the closure of the two remaining military bases in Georgia and the restoration of rail traffic via Abkhazia were also discussed. LF

Rustavi-2 made public on 18 May details of a new plan to resolve the Abkhaz conflict, Caucasus Press reported. Rustavi-2 said that plan, proposed by Moscow, defines Georgia as a federal state within which Abkhazia is a sovereign entity, and is similar to the "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi" drafted by former UN special representative Dieter Boden. But "The Georgian Messenger" on 14 May as cited by Groong claimed the new Russian plan envisages not a federation but a confederation. That publication predicted that the Georgian leadership, which hitherto rejected the confederation model, will agree to it on condition that provision is made for the Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war to return to their abandoned homes. LF

Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava told Caucasus Press on 15 May that at a meeting in Tbilisi the previous day he briefed representatives from Russia, North Ossetia, and the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia on a new Georgian initiative to resolve the deadlocked conflict between the central Georgian government and South Ossetia. Khaindrava did not divulge details but excluded a repeat in South Ossetia of the Adjar scenario, which entailed mobilizing the local population to force the leadership to step down. Speaking in Moscow on 17 May, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma International Affairs Committee, expressed concern that the Georgian leadership will attempt to apply the "Adjar scenario" in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

Despite Khaindrava's statement, the authorities in South Ossetia have intensified security measures in the run-up to local parliamentary elections scheduled for 23 May, Interfax reported on 17 May, quoting South Ossetian Security Council Secretary Djemal Karkusov. Karkusov claimed that "both foreign and internal forces are interested in destabilizing the situation" in the unrecognized republic. A total of 54 candidates representing 16 political parties and movements have registered to contest the 19 seats in the South Ossetian legislature, Caucasus Press reported on 3 and 10 May. No candidates have registered to contest four constituencies in which the population is predominantly Georgian. LF

Officials from Kazakhstan and China signed an agreement on 17 May to construct an oil pipeline from western Kazakhstan to China, Kazakh TV reported the same day. The signing came during an official visit by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to China. Uzakbai Karabalin, the head of state oil company KazMunaiGaz, and Chen Geng, president of China National Petroleum Corporation, signed the agreement to build the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline. Construction on the $688 million, 988-kilometer pipeline will begin in August, "Izvestiya" reported. The newspaper quoted Karabalin as saying, "The signing took place after lengthy, difficult negotiations." In the course of his visit, Nazarbaev met with Chinese Chairman Hu Jintao and Zhang Deguang, the executive secretary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Kazinform reported. Cooperation agreements on oil and gas, trade, agriculture, and transportation were signed at the ministerial level. DK

European ambassadors to the OSCE met with Kazakh parliamentarians on 17 May, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the same day. Norwegian ambassador Mette Kongshem praised the diversity of Kazakhstan's officially registered political parties but voiced concern over the country's electronic voting system. Birzhan Kaneshev, chairman of Kazakhstan's Agency for Computerization and Communications, defended the system as having "sufficient security mechanisms," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the chairman of the Mazhilis (lower house), said at the same news conference that fall 2004 elections would be an improvement on previous elections, but he warned that they would probably not meet OSCE standards. Kongshem also said the OSCE will reach a consensus decision in 2006 on Kazakhstan's bid to chair the organization in 2009. She noted that Kazakhstan can "count on the support of all 54 OSCE ambassadors in the period when this issue is considered." OSCE ambassadors from European member states are currently in Kazakhstan as they travel through Central Asia. DK

President Askar Akaev dismissed Emilbek Anapiyaev, his special envoy for the development of the Issyk-Kul region, on 14 May, reported on 17 May. Anipiyaev is one of 284 Kyrgyz officials currently facing embezzlement and bribery charges, Kyrgyzinfo reported. Anapiyaev has already been forced to return 2.3 million soms ($53,000) to the Kyrgyz budget. In a further sign that corruption remains a hot-button issue, UN Development Program official Kalman Mizsei said on 17 May that corruption in Kyrgyzstan has worsened over the last two years and that corrupt officials are scaring off foreign investors, Kyrgyzinfo reported the same day. DK

A group of armed Tajik men forced Kyrgyz police on 14 May to surrender a Tajik citizen they had arrested earlier in the day with 3 kilograms of heroin, reported. According to the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry, the men arrived in the village of Arka from Tajikistan, burst into the police station, freed the suspected drug smuggler, and returned to Tajikistan. The men were armed with automatic weapons and pistols. No one was injured in the confrontation. The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry is in contact with Tajik authorities about the incident, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

Peter Winglee, the head of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) mission to Tajikistan, summed up a 10-day visit to the country at a 14 May news conference, Asia-Plus Blitz reported on 17 May. Winglee said the IMF mission has recommended that the Tajik government conduct negotiations to restructure the country's $1 billion external debt, the bulk of which is owed to Russia and Uzbekistan. The debt represents approximately 60 percent of Tajikistan's GDP. Winglee saw progress on other fronts. "In general, we feel that Tajikistan has achieved good results in the economy," he said. Winglee stressed that the country is currently enjoying 8.5 percent economic growth. Part of that growth is due to the $200 million in remittances from migrant workers that the IMF estimates Tajikistan will receive in 2004. The mission also recommended that Tajikistan take steps to speed up reforms in education and land legislation. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov fired Kakajan Chariyev from his post as head of the Seydi oil refinery on 17 May for failing to stop cross-border smuggling, Turkmen TV reported the same day. "Oil and petrol are being smuggled over the border [with Uzbekistan]" the report quoted Niyazov as saying. "The ministry head also does not take measures. Today, I am firing the head of the Seydi oil refinery for being unable to maintain order there." Annanur Atajanov was, at his own request, relieved from his post as the head of the State Border Services for health reasons. Orazberdi Soltanov was appointed to replace him. DK

Russia's Sibur on 15 May was contracted to supply Belarus with 350 million cubic meters of natural gas at a price of some $47 per 1,000 cubic meters, Belapan reported. Meanwhile, Gazprom head Aleksei Miller told journalists the same day that the lack of a long-term contract between Belarus and Gazprom might develop into a major crisis because Russian gas traders that have been supplying the country with gas on the basis of short-term contracts will soon fulfill their contracts. Miller added that these traders -- Sibur, Itera, and Transnafta -- delivered 7.9 billion cubic meters of gas to Belarus by 13 May, whereas their annual limit is 8.3 billion cubic meters. Miller also stressed that Gazprom can sell Belarus gas at Russian domestic prices only on condition that there is "real integration" between the two countries. Gazprom has refused to supply gas to Belarus since the beginning of the year, demanding a higher price for deliveries and favorable terms in the potential purchase of a controlling stake in Belarus's gas-pipeline operator Beltranshaz. JM

Valery Levaneuski, the leader of the vendors' strike committee in Hrodna and a member of the opposition European Coalition Free Belarus, has not been released after serving 15 days in jail for passing out leaflets that called for participation in an authorized May Day rally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 May 2004), Belapan reported on 17 May. The State Security Committee (KGB) in Hrodna extended his term in custody by three days citing the need for clarification of "some circumstances," Levaneuski's wife told Belapan. She expressed fear that the KGB might exert physical and psychological pressure on her husband to force him reveal the identity of the mysterious author who wrote a poem that allegedly libels President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 2004). Levaneuski distributed leaflets with the incriminating poem while mobilizing vendors in Hrodna for the May Day rally. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on 18 May supported a proposal to discuss the issue of the deployment of Ukrainian peacekeepers in Iraq in a closed-door session on 19 May, UNIAN reported. The motion was backed by 230 deputies, mostly from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, Our Ukraine, and some pro-government caucuses. Lawmakers at the session will hear reports on the situation in Iraq from Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk, Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, National Security and Defense Council Secretary Volodymyr Radchenko, and Security Service chief Ihor Smeshko. The session is to be concluded by an open vote on a possible pullout of Ukrainian troops from Iraq. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on 17 May said Ukraine should give up "Euromanticism" in its relations with the European Union, Interfax reported. Yanukovych was commenting on his scheduled visit to Brussels on 18-19 May, where he will head a Ukrainian delegation attending a meeting of the Ukraine-EU Cooperation Council. "Ukraine has been saying it strives for integration in the EU, but I wish we had found an answer to the question of what this means," Yanukovych said. "Europe does not need Ukraine with its problems, and we should clearly realize this...and move away from Euromanticism." JM

The Constitutional Court on 17 May rejected a request by 165 lawmakers that it rule whether their bill of proposed constitutional amendments, including one that would introduce Russian as an "official" language in Ukraine, is constitutional, Interfax reported. The proposed amendment in question reads: "Citizens have the right to use Ukrainian as the state language and Russian as the official language in the process of managing state matters and in self-government bodies." In rejecting the request, the court said amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution's Chapter 1, titled "Basic Principles," should be supported by at least 300 deputies. According to the court, the proposed amendment relates to Article 10 in Chapter 1 of the constitution, which establishes Ukrainian as the state language in Ukraine. Moreover, the court cited a December 1999 ruling that the terms "state language" and "official language" are synonymous. JM

SFOR commander Major General Virgil Packett said in Sarajevo on 17 May that SFOR has increased pressure on authorities in Republika Srpska to help bring war criminals to justice, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He added that he is optimistic that international forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina will soon arrest former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and other indictees of the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, as well as their supporters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 17 May 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 and 23 April 2004). UB

Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic told European ambassadors on 17 May of the Serbian government's plan to decentralize the administration in Kosova and grant autonomy to Serbs and other minorities, Tanjug reported. The government plans to ensure minority rights by granting a mixed system of territorial, personal, and cultural autonomy, he said. The Kosovar Albanian majority has rejected the plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 April and 6 and 12 May 2004). UB

During a 17 May meeting in Brussels of the European Council on general affairs and foreign relations, the EU's foreign and defense ministers reiterated their "strong support for the work of [the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) and its head, Harri Holkeri,] in the implementation of [UN Security Council Resolution] 1244," according to an EU news release the same day. "[The European Council] emphasized its commitment to the policy of Standards before Status, welcomed the Kosova Standards Implementation Plan, and called upon the [Kosovar] Provisional Institutions of Self Government (PISG), with the support of UNMIK, to speed up the active implementation of the standards, including effective local government." The press release added, "The Council again urged the PISG to demonstrate in an unambiguous manner their commitment to a multiethnic Kosova and to the security and rights of members of all communities in Kosova." UB

The Council of Europe also reviewed the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) for Southeast Europe, the EU news release of 17 May added. The council "reconfirmed that the SAP will remain the overall framework for the European course of the Western Balkans countries, all the way to their future accession" but "noted that progress in the region remains uneven. It noted in particular the need for improvement in the levels of cooperation with [the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal] and for greater progress in the fight against organized crime and corruption." In its individual assessments of Balkan countries' progress, the news release said the implementation of necessary reforms in Albania "had been limited." It said that, in Bosnia, "government at state level remained underdeveloped and...public administration reform had just begun." The council called on Macedonia to strengthen its judicial system and to reform its security sector. It also "regretted that the Constitutional Charter [of Serbia and Montenegro] had not yet been fully implemented and that the Internal Market and Trade Action Plan remained uncompleted." It also stated that the reforms of the judiciary and police are insufficient (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March and 14 May 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 February and 27 June 2003). UB

Speaking after a meeting with visiting Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano in Ohrid on 17 May, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski said he wishes to continue the excellent cooperation with Nano, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. The talks focused on the two countries' NATO and EU integration as well as on the improvement of regional cooperation. Crvenkovski said he introduced his successor as prime minister, Hari Kostov, to Nano in order to ensure continuity. Nano welcomed that Ali Ahmeti of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration -- which is a junior coalition partner in the Macedonian government -- also participated in the talks, as the relations between the Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority play an important role in the relations between the two countries. UB

After discussions with his visiting Serbian counterpart Vojislav Kostunica, Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said on 17 May that the two countries' ambassadors to the EU will soon discuss with the EU measures to ease visa requirements Romania must impose on Serbia and Montenegro to comply with EU-accession requirements, Mediafax reported. Kostunica said that a "more flexible" visa regime would favor bilateral relations. Romania has pledged to impose visa restrictions on Serbia and Montenegro as well as Ukraine this year. It is to impose similar restrictions on Moldova by the time Romania accedes to the EU, for which it has received a target date of 2007. The two prime ministers also discussed ways of protecting the Romanian and Serbian minorities in their respective countries. Joint economic projects were also discussed, including an oil pipeline that would run from the Black Sea port of Constanta to Italy, a highway from the western Romanian city of Timisoara to Belgrade, and extending railway lines. Kostunica also met with President Ion Iliescu. ZsM

Romanian Labor, Social Solidarity, and Family Minister Elena Dumitru said at a 17 May press conference that in an effort to encourage domestic adoptions, the authorities will financially support impoverished Romanian families seeking to adopt children, Mediafax reported. Dumitru said the authorities want to support the local community "to protect its own children." Dumitru added this does not disallow the possibility of allowing international adoptions, which Romania currently bans under most circumstances, but stressed that they will only be allowed as "an exception, under strict conditions." The issue has become a lighting rod for Romania, as the European Union has pushed the country to maintain its current ban on foreign adoptions while the United States has promoted lifting the ban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 May 2004). ZsM

The Moldovan Public Policies Institute and the Chisinau branch of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on 17 May released a report by the London-based NGO Saferworld that says the Transdniester conflict "remains a serious threat to the political and economic stability of [Moldova] and the security of the whole region," Flux reported. The report, titled "Southeastern Europe Small Arms and Light Weapons Monitor," says the "illicit production and sale of [light weapons], large stockpiles of surplus weaponry, and the lack of controls over a wide segment of the country's external border are inextricably linked to the political and security challenges emanating from the 'frozen' conflict" in Transdniester. UNDP Chisinau representative Bruno Pouezat said during the report's presentation that such problems in arms production and controls can prevent a country from achieving sustainable development, adding that "socioeconomic problems can cause conflicts and crises." The Saferworld report was financed by the UNDP and the Stability Pact. ZsM

Despite recent statements by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma suggesting that he has no intention of running for a third term as president in the 31 October election, signs are emerging that this might not be the case.

On 14 May, Interfax-Ukraine reported that Kuchma ordered Vasyl Baziv, deputy head of his administration, to hold weekly press briefings about the president's activities. Such meetings had been halted in late 2000. "Lately the political situation in the state has become tense," Baziv told the media, according to Interfax. "We're on the eve of the election campaign, and, during the election campaign, informing the public must be more intense than under 'peaceful' conditions."

Others believe the resumption of weekly briefings is meant to grant the president more pre-election exposure than he already receives.

Baziv's reference to a "tense" situation in the country presumably pertains to events surrounding a local election in the city of Mukacheve in March. In Mukacheve, thugs threatened voters, destroyed property, and allegedly falsified voting records. Eyewitness reports by election observers subsequently claimed that the goons had been hired by the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o) to ensure the victory of its mayoral candidate. The SDPU-o party has been a firm backer of Kuchma, and some believe the disturbances in Mukacheve were sanctioned by the presidential administration.

When Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasylyev was asked by parliament to investigate the incident, he concluded that nothing improper had occurred -- implying at the same time that it might have been the opposition that tried to falsify voting records in Mukacheve.

A second indication that Kuchma might run for a new term is the more recent scandal involving the criminal past of presidential hopeful Viktor Yanukovych, the current prime minister. As a young man, Yanukovych was twice sentenced to short prison terms for assault. These facts were already a matter of public record when Yanukovych was nominated as prime minister, but they resurfaced in conjunction with the announcement that he was the presumed "presidential candidate of the parliamentary majority."

Some opposition leaders have questioned the wisdom of promoting a former convict as president.

What is more intriguing is that some media in Ukraine have given this charge such wide coverage. Some observers point out that -- had it wanted to prevent this type of damaging debate about its "candidate" -- the presidential administration could have easily prevented the media from doing so. Yet it did the opposite, effectively giving the charges wider publicity.

A third indication of Kuchma's aspirations for a new term is that many leading members of the presidential majority in parliament have distanced themselves from Yanukovych's selection as their candidate, also suggesting that they were not overjoyed by the choice. The matter will be decided at a majority caucus in June, an event that promises a few surprises.

A likely scenario, according to some opposition leaders, would see a parliamentary majority publicly imploring Kuchma to run again in order to "protect" the country's international prestige from a Yanukovych presidency.

Kuchma secured the legal right to campaign for a third term when the Constitutional Court ruled that he was in fact serving only his first term, since he was first elected to the presidency prior to the adoption in 1996 of the country's current constitution.

The main phase of the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program was launched on 17 May when the Rocket Brigade 99 in Kabul surrendered 69 surface-to-air missiles, Radio Afghanistan reported. Deputy Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak said the DDR program will be implemented throughout Afghanistan. However, the UN said the results of the program launch were "unconvincing," adding that the program is in jeopardy because some regional warlords are reluctant to hand over their weapons, the BBC reported on 17 May (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 13 May 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2004). The UN officials who run the DDR program have acknowledged that it will be difficult to convince major warlords -- such as Mohammad Ismail Khan, who is governor of Herat Province, or the commander of Military Corps No. 7 in Balkh Province, General Ata Mohammad -- to cooperate. Unidentified Western sources have indicated that Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who controls his own militia in Kabul and Panjsher provinces, also poses a problem to the implementation of the DDR program, the BBC added. British Major Jerry Knight, who was on hand for the handover of the missiles in Kabul, said that most of them were not operational. AT

General Ata Mohammad has expressed concern over the statement of a spokesman of the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) regarding the DDR program, Radio Afghanistan reported on 17 May. Ata Mohammad has claimed that UNAMA spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva has accused a number of warlords and commanders, including himself, of being unwilling to cooperate with the DDR program. Ata Mohammad claimed he has cooperated with the DDR program more than other commanders and warned that unless the UNAMA apologizes to him, he will cease such cooperation. Troops loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum's Junbish-e Melli party have fought against troops loyal to the Jamiat-e Islami party, led in northern Afghanistan by Ata Mohammad, since the demise of the Taliban in 2001. If the Afghan Transitional Administration manages to disarm the two it will constitute a major step toward consolidating its power in northern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May and 5 June 2003). Thus far, despite assurances to Kabul, neither Dostum nor Ata Mohammad has begun to disarm in earnest. AT

Zabul Province Governor Khail Mohammad Hosayni said on 17 May that neo-Taliban forces have launched an attack on the province's Mizan District, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. Hosayni said the offensive was continuing, but had no information on casualties sustained by either side. Colonel Mohammad Ayyub, security commander of Zabul, added that the insurgents "are using light and heavy weapons in the attack [but] the guards in the district are...firmly defending their positions." Zabul is one of the provinces most affected by the neo-Taliban insurgency, and at times officials in the province have claimed that one or more districts in the province have come under control of the militants (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July and 13 November 2003 and 26 February 2004). AT

Construction on the 122-kilometer road connecting Jalalabad to Asmar began on 17 May, according to a press release from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The road is intended to better connect Nangarhar, Konar, and Nuristan provinces in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S.-funded road project "will improve the economic possibilities involving trade of all three provinces, perhaps most dramatically in Nuristan, which has been isolated for centuries," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said. The Jalalabad-to-Asmar road is scheduled to be completed in mid-2005. AT

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said in Tehran on 16 May that the United States must apologize for the "desecration and disrespect" it has shown Shi'a Muslim shrines in the holy cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala, where it has fought militiamen loyal to Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, IRNA reported on 17 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 17 May 2004). At a meeting of ministers and provincial governors, he criticized U.S. polices that he said are "now more than ever threatening peace in the region and the entire world," and fuelling "extremism and violence" worldwide. Meanwhile, clerics reportedly gathered in the central Iranian city of Qom on 17 May to protest against the "desecration" of Shi'a shrines in Iraq, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported. The radio station also reported on 17 May that residents of Tehran plan to hold their own rally on 19 May to denounce "the desecration of the holy cities in Iraq and massacre of innocent people by occupying forces." Similar rallies are planned in other cities throughout Iran on 21 May. VS

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Iran's visiting Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in Moscow on 17 May that his country will make it a "political priority" to expand "excellent and solid" relations with Iran, IRNA and ISNA reported the same day. He confirmed that Russia will complete the nuclear power plant it is helping build in Bushehr in southern Iran, and said Russia "will not allow Iran to be the victim of rumors" regarding its nuclear intentions, IRNA added. Kharrazi said that Iran interacts with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the basis of "complete transparency and a firm defense of our legitimate rights, and so far we have defended these legitimate rights [before] the [IAEA] governing board," IRNA reported. He added that the Bushehr nuclear plant must "start working as soon as possible, as a symbol of cooperation and a confidence-building measure." IRNA reported that Putin will visit Iran at an unspecified future date to sign a 10-year bilateral economic-cooperation agreement. VS

Judiciary head Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi on 17 May rejected recent media reports that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has personally ordered the review of a death sentence handed down to dissident Hashem Aghajari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2004), reported ISNA, the news agency that first published the information. "So far, the judiciary has not been sent any instruction from his eminence, nor has any state order been issued," ISNA quoted Hashemi-Shahrudi as saying at a meeting of judiciary officials. "Basically there is no need for a state order because there are legal channels for legal cases, and the sentence is not definitive." He said the Supreme Court is reviewing the case. ISNA reported on 17 May that it stands by "every detail" of its 15 May report on Khamenei's intervention, in which it also cited his "intense dissatisfaction with the delay in the case." VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 17 May condemned the killing that day of Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad (a.k.a. Izz al-Din Salim), the Iraqi Governing Council's president for the month of May (see Iraq items below and "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2004), IRNA reported the same day. However, he added that the coalition presence in Iraq "provokes plots" and causes "insecurity and bloodshed." "The Islamic Republic...emphasizes that the continuation of forceful policies and the occupiers' insistence on spreading violence and [using] militarism against [Iraqis]...will increase acts of sabotage and instability" in Iraq, Assefi said. Meanwhile, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Yahya Rahim Safavi on 17 May criticized as "an American plan" proposals by UN special envoy "Lakhdar Brahimi, the American representative" to form an interim Iraqi government, IRNA reported the same day. Brahimi is working to help form an administration for the 30 June handover of authority. This "flawed plan is the same as the Governing Council plan, and a government is being formed without consulting the popular vote," he said. "Young Iraqis will not let an American dictatorship replace the dictatorship of Saddam [Hussein]." VS

An artillery shell recently detonated near a U.S. convoy in Baghdad contained the nerve agent sarin, international media reported on 18 May. Trace amounts of the chemical were released from the shell, causing injury to two ordnance-disposal experts, AP quoted a U.S. military official as saying on 17 May. "The Iraqi Survey Group confirmed today that a 155-millimeter artillery round containing sarin nerve agent had been found. The round had been rigged as an [improvised explosive device (IED)], which was discovered by a U.S. force convoy," U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told reporters at a 17 May press briefing in Baghdad ( "A detonation occurred before the IED could be rendered inoperable. This produced a very small dispersal of agent. The round was an old binary type requiring the mixing of two chemical components in separate sections of the cell before the deadly agent is produced. The cell is designed to work after being fired from an artillery piece. Mixing and dispersal of the agent from such a projectile as an IED is very limited." Kimmitt added that the Hussein regime had declared that all such rounds were destroyed prior to the 1991 Gulf War. KR

A group identifying itself as "The Arab Resistance Movement -- Al-Rashid Brigades" claimed responsibility for the 17 May assassination of Iraqi Governing Council President for the month of May Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad (a.k.a. Izz al-Din Salim) in a statement posted on the website. "Two heroic members...carried out a qualitative heroic operation, which led to the killing of the traitor and mercenary, Izz al-Din Salim. The Brigades pledges to the masses of our nation to pursue struggle until the liberation of glorious Iraq and dear Palestine," the statement read. KR

Four Shi'ite members of the Iraqi Governing Council along with 18 Iraqi political organizations reportedly announced the establishment of a Shi'ite political council in Baghdad on 16 May, the Shi'ite News Agency website (http;// reported on 17 May. A statement released by the council called for the Iraqi government to take control of the armed forces, security agencies, Iraqi foreign policy, and the revenues from the Development Fund for Iraq, currently under U.S. control. The council also called for the dismissal of U.S.-appointed advisers to the interim coalition. The statement also noted the council's objection to the return of former Hussein-regime elements to positions within the Iraqi military and government. The Governing Council members to the council are: Ahmad Chalabi, Ahmad al-Barak, Salamah al-Khafaji, and Abd al-Karim al-Mahmadawi. Other signatories to the statement included the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party--Iraq Branch, the Islamic Movement of Iraq, the Iraqi National Congress, the Unified Iraqi Islamic Movement, Hizballah of Iraq, the Shi'ite Kurds Islamic Federation, and the New Iraq Movement, among others. KR

The United States has reportedly decided to stop financing the former Iraqi opposition group and current political party the Iraqi National Congress (INC), reported on 17 May. The group has reportedly received $335,000 per month since mid-2002, and some $27 million over the past four years, according to an INC official. The funding came from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, which paid the INC to provide intelligence on Iraq -- some of which was later determined in internal government reviews to be useless, misleading, or even fabricated, reported. Chalabi has been a vocal critic of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq and of UN special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi over the past year. KR

Eight Iraqis were killed and 13 others wounded when U.S. forces clashed with militiamen loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Karbala on 17 May, Reuters reported. Militiamen reportedly launched rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. tanks during the fighting, which took place some 100 meters from the city's shrines, some of the most-revered to Shi'a Muslims. U.S. military spokesman Kimmitt told a 17 May news briefing in Baghdad ( that al-Sadr's militiamen are holed up in the Iranian quarter of downtown Karbala. Polish multinational division troops in Karbala reported that the militiamen are also firing on coalition forces from the second floor of the Imam al-Husayn Shrine, and using the shrine for cover, since coalition forces are hesitant to fire on a holy site. Militants launched three hit-and-run attacks on police stations in Al-Najaf on 17 May, using rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and small arms fire, Kimmitt said. KR