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Newsline - September 24, 2004

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed the 59th UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September, laying out Moscow's vision for how best to conduct the war against international terrorism, Russian and Western media reported. Lavrov stressed the need for international unity in the face of terrorism. He also called for the "development and perfection" of international law in order to combat terrorism. Lavrov also called on all countries to "end the practice of extending political asylum to terrorists and their accomplices and sponsors." He said the international community must do more to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. He added that the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan must be stopped, as it is a major source of terrorist funding. Finally, Lavrov said the war against terrorism must be based on the structures of the UN and called for a new Security Council resolution to bolster the UN's Counterterrorism Committee. "The international community is passing through a complex period of the formation of a new system of international relations," Lavrov says. "It is already clear that this will be a long process with an uncertain and unpredictable future." RC

Foreign Minister Lavrov told journalists after he met in New York with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 23 September that "our proposals have met with quite a positive response on the part of our U.S. colleagues and other permanent members of the UN Security Council," Interfax reported on September 24. Powell and Lavrov also discussed the situation in Iraq, calling for increased international efforts to improve stability there through the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1546, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 September. RC

The joint legislative commission investigating the Beslan school hostage crisis is continuing hearing testimony from witnesses and officials in North Ossetia, and RIA-Novosti reported on 24 September. Commission Chairman and Federation Council Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Torshin told the news agency that the results of the commission's work will be ready during the first half of October. The news agency reported that the commission is also accepting anonymous information and proposals through special suggestion boxes in Beslan and that 127 people have telephoned a special hotline that has been set up to aid the investigation. "Every day we are getting written and oral statements and they will be carefully checked," Torshin said. "Currently the commission is working on more than 500 such questions." RC

Lieutenant General Yevgenii Abrashin, who is first deputy commander of the North Caucasus Military District's Interior Ministry forces, wrote a commentary in "Izvestiya" on 24 September in which he critically analyzed the security lapses that lead to the Beslan tragedy. Abrashin said that officials had considerable vague information that a terrorist attack was being prepared but the only precaution taken was enhanced security of military headquarters in the region in order to prevent an attack like the one on police installations in Ingushetia in June. He said that officials failed to increase checkpoints on roads, to conduct helicopter patrols along the North Ossetia-Chechnya border, to increase the police presence in North Ossetian towns, and to send patrols to check out and secure ruined buildings in the vicinities of Vladikavkaz and Beslan. Abrashin writes further that officials failed to recall Interior Ministry forces that had been sent from North Ossetia and Ingushetia to Chechnya, as is standard procedure when a security alert is ordered. He said that such information about possible attacks is so common that officials "have become inured to the constant flow" and fail to react adequately. RC

Lieutenant General Abrashin also wrote in "Izvestiya" on 24 September that "at present the number of tasks facing the forces in Chechnya exceeds their physical possibilities." "Most of their current functions are connected with ensuring their own security," Abrashkin wrote. "Active missions to liquidate remaining and newly created band formations are carried out episodically and ineffectively. Therefore we now have the paradoxical situation of fighters committing terrorist acts [in other parts of Russia] hiding from justice in Chechnya." He called for the creation of a military commandant for the entire North Caucasus region who would be in command of a unified military operations group for the region. RC

Ten regional governors have signed up this week to join the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, Duma Speaker and party leader Boris Gryzlov announced on 22 September, RosBalt and other Russian media reported. Gryzlov did not name the governors, but said that as many as 20 more are expected to join in the near future, "The Moscow Times" reported on 24 September. Although Gryzlov said the sudden interest in Unified Russia indicates "a growth of trust in the party," Gryzlov also urged Duma deputies to change a law that currently forbids government ministers from holding leadership positions in political parties, saying that doing so would bring numerous government figures into Unified Russia's ranks. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 24 September that an unnamed party source said there are now 26 governors in the party. The daily reported that Evenk Autonomous Okrug Boris Zolotarev joined the party on 1 September. Gryzlov said the party now has about 700,000 members, RosBalt reported. RC

Many analysts see the sudden interest of governors in Unified Russia as an attempt by regional leaders to maintain political influence in the wake of President Vladimir Putin's recently announced plans to end the direct election of regional governors. "Governors will think that joining Unified Russia will help improve their chances in the competition to be appointed for another term," Center for Political Technologies Deputy General Director Boris Markarenko told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 24 September. "If asked, [the governors] would take off their pants just to keep their power," analyst Andrei Piontkovskii was quoted as telling "The Moscow Times." Institute of Regional Problems Director Maksim Dianov noted that "governors are not the only ones joining Unified Russia, but also deputy governors and the speakers of regional legislators." "Governors understand that the most important thing to secure reelection is loyalty and now they are striving to show it," he said. RC

The Duma's Information Policy Committee on 23 September rejected a bill that would have barred broadcast media from reporting any information during hostage crises, ITAR-TASS reported. The bill was proposed by Deputy Aleksandr Krutov (Motherland), and would have allowed broadcast media to report on such matters only after the crisis had passed. Committee Chairman Valerii Komissarov (Unified Russia) told the news agency that the bill "contradicts the letter and spirit of the Russian Constitution and restricts the work of the mass media in many ways." The committee voted to hold a roundtable to discuss the work of the media during such crises. Twenty-eight of the 134 members of the Academy of Russian Television -- including popular television host Vladimir Pozner, National Association of Telebroadcasters President Eduard Sagalev, journalists Viktor Shederovich and Svetlana Sorokina, and former NTV General Director Yevgenii Kiselev -- they have signed a statement declaring that "Russian television today is not free" and that objective information has been replaced by official propaganda, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 25 September. The statement laments the closure of analytical-informational programs such as NTV's "Namedni" and "Svoboda Slova." RC

POLL SHOWS PEOPLE OPPOSE APPOINTING GOVERNORS... reported on 23 September that a recent poll conducted by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 48 percent of an unspecified number of respondents oppose President Putin's recent proposal to cancel gubernatorial elections in favor of a system of appointing regional executives, while 38 percent support it. Commenting on the findings, Igor Bunin of the Center for Political Technologies noted that while only 38 percent of respondents supported the president's initiative, this number represents an 18 percent increase over a previous poll in which respondents were also asked, "For the cause of unity of the country, would you support the idea of appointing governors?" Bunin suggested that the personal authority of the president made the idea more palatable. However, he said that he doesn't think the number of people supporting elections will drop further. Independent State Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin said he was surprised and gratified by the results, concluding that "these figures will give the president's opponents an opportunity to appeal to public opinion." JAC

Ekspertiza Foundation head Mark Urnov predicted that if a public relations campaign is launched in the media to persuade people that appointing governors is a good idea, then some part of the population will change its position. "But as a first measure -- this is very indicative. The rating of the president remains very high, but it is already starting to fall. There are more people who trust him than don't, but in the discussion of his initiative, this situation could reverse itself." Meanwhile, "Izvestiya" reported on 23 September that according to its unidentified sources the bill on the new procedure for appointing governors could be ready as soon as the middle of October. JAC

President Putin discussed on 23 September with Ella Pamfilova, head of the Human Rights Commission, his recent proposal to create a Public Chamber to oversee the work of Russia's legislative branch, Interfax and RIA-Novosti reported. Pamfilova said that her commission has experience that could prove useful in the forming of such a chamber. "For the past two years, our commission has launched many mechanisms for public control," including public control over the law-enforcement system, she commented. She told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 24 September that Putin is seeking to conduct a broad discussion of what the chamber should be and "will enter into an intense dialogue with the public.... It is difficult to say when the Public Chamber will start normal work. The sooner, the better, but it should not in any case be a rush job." JAC

Participating in a meeting of the Civil Debates on 22 September, Maria Slobodskaya suggested that the chamber should have the right to veto controversial legislation, "Izvestiya" reported on 23 September. According to the daily, other unidentified participants in the session disagreed, arguing that the chamber should not so much control the authorities, but provide expertise during the discussion of legislation and function as a kind of "tribune of moral authority." JAC

According to the Central Bank, the volume of Russia's gold and hard currency reserves has reached a new record, Russian news agencies reported on 23 September. As of 17 September, they reached $92.6 billion. From 10 to 17 September, the reserves grew by $2.6 billion, reported. The highest weekly boost was recorded in July 1998 when reserves jumped by $5.6 billion, according to AK&M. Oleg Solntsev explained that the sharp rise in the reserves was linked to the lowering of net capital outflow from Russia and additional export earnings, FK-Novosti reported. JAC

President Putin has signed a decree transferring Major General Yurii Sapunov, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) directorate in Astrakhan Oblast, to the FSB's central apparatus in Moscow, VolgaInform reported on 23 September citing "Astrankhanskie novosti." Replacing Sapunov will reportedly be one of FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev's deputies. Astrakhan Governor Anatolii Guzhvin died unexpectedly in August after ruling the region for some 18 years, and elections to replace him will be held on 5 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 August 2004). JAC

Both "Novye izvestiya" and "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 23 September that the political opposition in Kalmykia believes it has support in Moscow for its quest to unseat President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. And in an interview with "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 24 September, political analyst Andrei Piontkovskii called the recent rally a "revolution from below, which the federal center looked favorably upon, because if it hadn't, we wouldn't have seen it on television" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2004). However, "Kommersant-Daily" noted that presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak told reporters on 22 September that there is "no basis" to consider Ilyumzhinov "illegitimate." And he promised to put an end to any disturbances of the public order. In comments to "Moskovskii komsomolets," Baatr Shondzhiev, a former presidential candidate in Kalmykia, said Moscow still supports Ilyumzhinov because "the central authorities do not want another [source] of tension in the North Caucasus." However, the daily charged that Ilyumzhinov enjoys good relations with radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev and has granted him land in Kalmykia for the construction of Chechen camps where armed people live. JAC

In a 23 September statement posted the following day on, Aslan Maskhadov denied that either the Chechen government or the forces under his command played any role in the "terrorist act in Beslan." As in his earlier condemnation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 September 2004), Maskhadov stressed that such acts are the "consequence of and reaction to Russia's genocidal war against the Chechen people." Maskhadov pledged that once the war in Chechnya is over, "people who have committed illegal acts will be brought to trial, including Shamil Basaev." On 17 September, Basaev claimed responsibility for the Beslan hostage taking (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September 2004). LF

Radical field commander Basaev has left Russia for Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, reported on 23 September, quoting an unnamed source with the Russian security service personnel engaged in tracking down militants in the North Caucasus. The same website quoted a second unidentified source as saying that Basaev met in August "on neutral territory" with Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili, noting that both men "see Russia as an enemy." LF

Police in Yerevan said on 23 September they have questioned a man who "voluntarily" reported for investigation the previous day after having been publicly identified by oppositionist Ashot Manucharian as one of the men who attacked and seriously injured him five months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2004). The suspect, Vrezh Osipian, denies any involvement in the attack, and Manucharian said on 23 September he will not make a statement to the police because he does not believe they would bring the perpetrators to justice. Police suspended their investigation into the incident in June, saying they had failed to identify any of Manucharian's attackers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 June 2004). LF

Filip Dimitrov, who is OSCE Chairman in Office Solomon Pasi's special envoy for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, met in Yerevan on 22 September with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and on 23 September with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, Noyan Tapan reported. Topics discussed included the Karabakh conflict, Armenia-OSCE relations, and the role of Turkey. LF

On 22 September, several of the seven opposition leaders charged with inciting violence between police and opposition supporters in the wake of the 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election resorted to insulting language in protesting the prosecution's questioning of a prosecution witness from the Interior Ministry Department for the Struggle with Organized Crime, reported on 24 September. The official in question, Samed Djafarov, is one of several witnesses whom the accused claim tortured them during the pretrial investigation. Judge Mansur Ibaev ruled that the seven accused should not attend future court sessions, and the management of the Bailovo pretrial detention center placed three of them in solitary confinement. On 23 September, attorneys for the seven accused argued without success that continuing the trial in the absence of the accused is illegal. Azerbaijani human-rights activist Leyla Yunus told Turan on 23 September that the trial, now in its fifth month, has been marred by countless procedural violations. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili, who was scheduled to return to Tbilisi on 23 September, two days after addressing the UN General Assembly, has extended his stay in the U.S. by two days, reported on 23 September, quoting State Chancellery officials who failed to specify any reason for the extension. Saakashvili studied and worked in the United States for several years. LF

Valerii Khrustal, who is first deputy chairman of Georgia's Supreme Court, told journalists in Tbilisi on 23 September that newly appointed ombudsman Sozar Subeliani was mistaken in alleging the previous day that Khrustal acted illegally in extending for three months the pretrial detention of a man already detained for two years on suspicion of theft, Caucasus Press and reported. Subeliani argued that Khrustal should resign. Khrustal branded Subeliani's allegations groundless and incompetent and suggested he was deliberately misinformed by unspecified persons who sought to discredit the judicial system. LF

British specialists will travel to Georgia to assess and help contain the damage caused by an accident on 11 September at an oil well in the eastern village of Ninotsminda, Caucasus Press reported on 23 September. An unspecified amount of oil was spilled -- damaging five hectares of nearby woods -- along with enough methane gas to cause health damage to local inhabitants. On 16 September the daily "24 saati" reported that local residents were leaving the village in panic and had accused the British-Georgian consortium engaged in the drilling operation of criminal negligence. LF

Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission announced on 23 September that the pro-presidential Otan party garnered 60 percent of the vote in 19 September parliamentary elections, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Ten seats in the 77-member lower chamber of parliament are distributed by party slates, giving Otan seven of the party-slate seats, while the pro-presidential Asar party, pro-presidential AIST bloc of the Civic and Agrarian parties, and the moderate opposition party Ak Zhol received one seat each. Among 67 single-mandate constituencies, 45 races produced first-round winners, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Otan won 27 races, AIST nine, and Asar two, while seven independents also emerged as winners. A second round in 22 constituencies is tentatively scheduled for 3 October. According to "Kazakhstan Today," cumulative results as of 23 September are: 34 seats for Otan, 10 for AIST, three for Asar, one for Ak Zhol, and seven for independents. DK

The prime ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states met in Bishkek on 23 September to discuss economic and security cooperation, reported. They signed a joint communique and several agreements on the SCO's 2005 budget. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that SCO economic cooperation will focus on the transportation, telecommunications, energy, and agricultural sectors, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev stressed the importance of increasing cultural ties as well, Kabar news agency reported. The SCO member states are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan sent deputy prime ministers to the meeting. DK

Parliament members Azimbek Beknazarov, Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, and Bektur Asanov of the People's Power Bloc held a press conference in Bishkek on 23 September to condemn the Constitutional Court's 21 September decision not to examine the constitutionality of President Askar Akaev seeking yet another term, reported. They said that the court violated the constitution when it rejected the request for a ruling. For his part, Akaev has said that he does not plan to run for president in 2005. DK

Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, told the Sixth Central Asian Media Conference in Dushanbe on 23 September that libel laws and access to information are two of the most serious problems facing media in the region, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Haraszti spoke out in favor of decriminalizing libel to prevent the libel law from being used as a tool to silence journalists. Yves Bargain, the OSCE envoy to Tajikistan, voiced concern that a number of Tajik independent newspapers have not appeared since the Jiyonkhon printing house was shut down for tax violations on 19 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 August 2004). An OSCE spokesman said that Haraszti will raise the issue at a meeting with Tajik presidential adviser Karomatullo Olimov, Avesta reported. The two-day OSCE-sponsored conference has brought together about 100 journalists from all Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan. DK

The Military Prosecutor's Office has suspended the activities of Olimp Bank in connection with its ongoing investigation into the case of former Drug Control Agency head Ghaffor Mirzoev, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 23 September. Mirzoev also headed the National Olympic Committee, which was one of the founders of Olimp Bank. Turaqul Haqnazarov, the director of the National Bank's supervision department, told Asia Plus that "The bank's future will depend on the investigation's results and a decision by the Military Prosecutor's Office." RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported that it has already received calls from worried depositors. Bank President Tolibjon Siddiqov told RFE/RL that the bank's clients would regain access to their funds when prosecutors complete their investigation in two weeks. But prosecutors told RFE/RL that they could not say when the investigation would be over. Mirzoev was arrested on corruption charges on 6 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2004). DK

Tajik citizens will be required to have valid passports in order to travel to Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia after 1 January 2005, Avesta reported on 23 September citing a source in the Tajik Foreign Ministry. The new regulations had been scheduled to go into effect on 1 July 2005, but the start date was moved up at the request of Russia. The new requirements are a consequence of an agreement between the Eurasian Economic Community's member states (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan). DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka lectured students at Brest State University on 23 September on a variety of issues for nearly four hours, Belapan reported. Lukashenka said Belarus is witnessing an upswing in the economy, and predicted that the average monthly wage will reach $195 at the end of 2004 and increase to $250 the following year and to $750 by 2010. Lukashenka noted that the country's average monthly wage increased from $20-$30 in the mid-1990s to $165 at present. "Our economy has not been plundered; it is owned by the state," he said. "The country has almost no external debt and we're opening the door to investment." According to the Belarusian leader, 20-25 percent of Belarusians live below the poverty line. JM

Lukashenka also told students in Brest on 23 September that the government closed the European Humanities University (EHU) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 August 2004) because it had turned out that the school's main goal was to educate a new Belarusian elite that would make the nation pro-Western, Belapan reported. "What is this, a training center for future administrators, [a future] elite in the center of Minsk? But what about the rest of Belarusian higher schools, who are they educating, servants for that elite?" Lukashenka asked rhetorically. "They [EHU] had been warned to train students like other schools did." The private EHU, which was sponsored partly by students' fees and partly by Western grants, was closed by the Education Ministry in July under the pretext that the university didn't have large enough premises to hold classes. JM

When asked by students in Brest about the state language policy, Lukashenka pledged to ensure that the people have a choice between Belarusian and Russian, Belapan reported. But he also swore to preserve the status of Russian as the second official language, in accordance with the 1995 referendum. "The Russian language will be in Belarus as long as I am president," Lukashenka stressed. "The lack of the Russian language in Belarus will spell the death of the state." Commenting on the 17 October presidential referendum designed to empower him to extend his rule indefinitely, Lukashenka said the referendum provides the "strongest, most objective, and most realistic assessment" of his 10-year rule. "No opposition is able to assess the president as comprehensively as the people in a referendum," Lukashenka added. JM

RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 23 September that censors on state-run television are banning appeals by opposition candidates for the 17 October parliamentary elections to say "no" in the same day's presidential referendum to President Lukashenka's intention to seek a third presidential term. In particular, censors in Homel cut a passage regarding the referendum from a prerecorded campaign broadcast by Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly candidate Yauhen Furseyeu without his knowledge and permission. In Hrodna, a prerecorded campaign program by Belarusian Social Democratic Party-Popular Assembly candidate Barys Laukovich, who called on voters to say "no" in the referendum, was not broadcast at all. Under Belarus's election legislation, candidates are entitled to air short, free-of-charge campaign programs on state-run television and radio channels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2004). JM

Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych was hospitalized in Ivano-Frankivsk on 24 September after two objects, one of them "hard," were thrown at him in that western Ukrainian city, Ukrainian news agencies reported, quoting Yanukovych's spokeswoman Hanna Herman. Herman said the attacker was arrested and added that Yanukovych's "injuries" were not life-threatening. Meanwhile, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Tetyana Podoshevska told Interfax that no "weighty or blunt objects" have been thrown at Yanukovych in Ivano-Frankivsk. According to Podoshevska, police arrested a 17-year-old youth, a son of the dean of a higher educational institution in the region, who threw an egg at Yanukovych. Later on, Interfax quoted a source from local police as saying that Yanukovych was hit by two "weighty objects" thrown by members of a group called the Union of Young Nationalists. Lawmaker Mykola Tomenko from the opposition Our Ukraine bloc led by Yanukovych's presidential rival Viktor Yushchenko, said Our Ukraine has no relation whatsoever to the incident involving the prime minister in Ivano-Frankivsk. Tomenko was responding to Herman's earlier statement saying that Our Ukraine adherents behaved "aggressively" during Yanukovych's meeting with voters in Ivano-Frankivsk. JM

A military court in Moscow, following a request by Russia's Main Military Prosecutor's Office, issued an international arrest warrant on 23 September for Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the opposition Fatherland Party and the eponymous opposition bloc in Ukraine, Ukrainian and Russian media reported. Russian military prosecutors, who have recently summoned Tymoshenko for an inquiry in Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September 2004), suspect her of bribing Russian Defense Ministry officials when she headed Ukraine's Unified Energy Systems in 1995-97. The Fatherland Party said in a statement on 24 September that Moscow's move is "yet another dirty episode in the continued hounding of leaders of the Ukrainian opposition." Tymoshenko works in the election campaign staff of opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. The Fatherland Party said the real instigators of the arrest warrant for Tymoshenko were President Leonid Kuchma, presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, and Prime Minister Yanukovych. The party accused them of "betrayal of national interests" in order to "block the participation of Tymoshenko in organizing the opposition victory" in the 31 October presidential elections. JM

President Leonid Kuchma on 24 September appointed Oleksandr Kuzmuk as defense minister following the dismissal of Yevhen Marchuk two days before (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2004). Kuzmuk, 50, was Ukraine's defense minister from 1996-2001. Kuzmuk was elected to the Verkhovna Rada in 2002 and has since belonged to the pro-government Labor Ukraine caucus. JM

Leaders of the parliaments of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (GUUAM) set up a GUUAM Parliamentary Assembly in Kyiv on 23 September, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Uzbekistan, which temporarily has suspended its membership in GUUAM, was not represented at the Kyiv meeting. The declaration of the GUUAM Parliamentary Assembly states that parliamentarians will work toward strengthening democracy and the rule of law, ensuring the observance of human rights, and developing market economies in their countries. The GUUAM Parliamentary Assembly headquarters will be located in Kyiv, according to UNIAN. JM

Slovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop told Reuters in Ljubljana on 23 September that his country might "not allow any further procedures regarding Croatia's accession to the EU." He added that Croatia must "accept the European policy of avoiding conflicts." An unnamed Slovenian diplomat, who declined to be identified, told the news agency that his government will raise the "issue of Croatia" at the EU foreign ministers' meeting slated for 11 October. The diplomat did not specify what Ljubljana will ask the EU to do. These statements by Rop and the diplomat follow a recent incident in which Croatian border guards briefly arrested 12 Slovenes, including two legislators, for allegedly failing to show their documents at the Secovlje border crossing. The Slovenes had just visited Slovenian nationalist politician Josko Joras, who lives in one of three disputed villages in the border area (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 3 August 2001, 23 August 2002, and 20 August 2004). Janez Podobnik, who heads the opposition Slovenian People's Party (SLS) to which Joras also belongs, was reportedly slightly injured in a scuffle with Croatian police. PM/DR

Slovenian Foreign Minister Ivo Vajgl notified the EU's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana on 23 September that the incident is unacceptable, Slovenian media reported. Slovenian Interior Minister Rado Bohinc charged that the incident violated a bilateral agreement to avoid altercations. Croatian media, however, linked the incident to the upcoming 3 October parliamentary elections in Slovenia. Vajgl, who belongs to the ruling Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS) party, also characterized the incident as a stunt staged by the SLS. In Zagreb, Croatian President Stipe Mesic said that all disputes must be resolved peacefully, and if that proves difficult, then outside arbitration must be sought, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM/DR

On 23 and 24 September, police in Zagreb and Zadar searched the homes of at least three friends of fugitive indicted war criminal and former General Ante Gotovina, arresting three men, dpa reported. Police said Zeljko Dilber, Zoni Maksan, and Zdenko Rincic were arrested in an action code-named "Hunt for Gotovina" on suspicion of helping him to remain at large. Police also found an unspecified quantity of unregistered firearms during their investigation. Failure to find and arrest Gotovina is probably the largest single impediment to progress in Croatia's hopes of joining the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 September 2004). PM

A spokesman for the Macedonian Interior Ministry confirmed on 22 September that border police had forbidden a cleric of the Greek Orthodox Church to enter the country on 21 September, "Dnevnik" reported. The ministry cited a law according to which foreign clerics must be refused entry if they either wear or carry with them their ecclesiastical garb and are not invited by any state authority or officially registered Macedonian religious community. Also on 21 September, Bishop Artemije of the Serbian Orthodox Church was turned back at the Macedonian-Serbian border, Kanal 5 TV reported on 23 September. According to Artemije, Macedonian police showed him an order from the ministry barring some 20 bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) from entering Macedonia. The Macedonian Interior Ministry nonetheless denied the existence of such a blacklist. These latest incidents occurred only days before the Holy Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC) is slated to discuss its long-standing conflict with the SPC. Neither the SPC nor any other Orthodox churches recognize the MPC, regarding it as schismatic and the creation of the former Yugoslav communist authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January and 20 August 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January and 6 August 2004). UB

Romanian negotiators in Brussels closed two more chapters of the EU's acquis communautaire on 22 September, Romanian media reported. The two chapters closed were the ones dealing with services and regional policies. Romania is to receive from the EU's structural and cohesion funds some 6 billion euros ($4.9 billion) from 2007 to 2009. The funds are to be used for raising economic competitiveness, and developing areas such as human resources, transport infrastructure, energy, and the environment. Romania has thus closed 27 of the 31 chapters, but the remaining ones are among the most difficult: environment, competition, justice and internal affairs, as well as miscellany. The government intends to close all chapters by the end of 2004. ZsM

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase announced on 23 September that the government has decided to recalculate public pensions starting from 1 October, Mediafax reported. The procedure will involve the readjustment of more than 4 million pensions and is to end by the end of 2005. Nastase insisted pensions will not decrease, adding there will be "significant raises." The prime minister also announced a series of other social-security measures. Observers have commented that the move is meant to ensure the ruling Social Democratic Party's success in the November elections. Earlier the same day, participating at a seminar on economic issues, Nastase said in the coming years Romania needs to pursue a cautious salary policy in order to avoid raising spending and increasing inflation. Romanian National Bank Governor Mugur Isarescu also warned that salary policies need to be related to productivity and not exclusively to price and tariff hikes. ZsM

Speaking at a 23 September press conference in Chisinau, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said NATO is "very interested in solving Moldova's political problems," adding that Moldova is NATO's "neighbor and valuable partner," Flux reported. He said the Transdniester conflict is on his current agenda, and is one of the topics he discusses with the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Ukraine, Russia, and the United States. He added that while NATO does not have a direct role in resolving the conflict, it can participate in the process. De Hoop Scheffer reiterated the organization's position that Russia needs to abide by its obligations assumed at the 1999 OSCE Istanbul summit on removing its troops from the region. He also said NATO supports Moldova's European integration aspirations, and there is still room for improving NATO's cooperation with Moldova. During his visit, de Hoop Scheffer met with President Vladimir Voronin and Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan. ZsM

Speaking at the opening of the Moldovan parliament's fall session on 23 September, speaker Eugenia Ostapciuc said the government's objective remains joining the European Union, with the hope of being accepted as an associate member by 2007, BASA-Press reported. She said, however, that European integration "does not mean giving up multilateral relations existing among the countries of the former Soviet area, [and] does not require Moldova's exit from the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States]." Ostapciuc also said Moldova's European integration depends more and more on the solving of the Transdniester conflict. She added that it is no longer only a local conflict, and called for the "broad participation of the international community" in finding a solution, as the current negotiation framework is "inefficient." ZsM

The recent by-election in Armenia's Kotayk region proved to be yet another manifestation of a post-Soviet culture of electoral fraud that has been the main source of political instability in Armenia. But it gained added significance in that it was widely regarded as the start of a proxy struggle between two potential candidates to succeed President Robert Kocharian, whose second and constitutionally final term in office expires in 2008: parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and influential Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian.

The disputed constituency is one of the country's 56 electoral districts that each choose one member of the parliament. (The remaining 75 parliament seats are contested on the party-list basis.) The vast majority of the parliamentarians elected from single mandate constituencies are wealthy, have connections with the government, and were either born in the region they represent or managed to acquire significant influence there.

Those parliamentarians are also often allied with local government chiefs, law-enforcement officials, and even criminal elements. That enables them to control the electoral bodies and even to resort with impunity to a broad range of vote falsifications, of which the most important is vote buying. This increasingly common practice is a poignant indication of widespread poverty and the decline of civil society in Armenia. The single-mandate districts are now practically off limits to the Armenian opposition, which simply does not have the financial means to compete with government-backed businessmen. Only two opposition candidates were elected to the parliament under the first-past-the-post system in the May 2003 legislative elections.

What made the Kotayk election somewhat different was that there were two businessman candidates representing rival government factions. One of them, Artak Sargsian, is affiliated with Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir Party, while the other, Arayik Hayrapetian, was put forward by a nongovernmental organization headed by Hovsepian. Both men expended disproportionate energy and resources in support of their respective candidates in an effort to demonstrate their strength and authority to the power class and ordinary Armenians alike. As one Armenian journalist observed, local residents have never before seen so many expensive cars in their predominantly rural area.

The race, boycotted by the opposition, proved extremely acrimonious, with each party accusing the other of vote rigging and other violations after polls closed late on 29 August. Baghdasarian personally went on record as accusing Armenian prosecutors of illegally meddling in politics. But according to media reports and witness accounts, both candidates handed out cash to thousands of voters, with individual bribes worth $10. The vote was too close to call and was rerun on 19 September.

Hayrapetian unexpectedly announced his effective withdrawal from the race a few days before the repeat ballot, making its outcome a foregone conclusion. His decision followed an unpublicized meeting between Kocharian and Hovsepian during which the latter was reportedly told to throw in the towel, according to the opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" on 16 September. Assuming that this is true, Kocharian must have grown seriously concerned about the potentially destabilizing effects of the bitter rivalry between two of his most prominent allies. His apparent decision to award the vacant parliament seat to Baghdasarian's party followed weeks of speculation that he is encouraging Hovsepian's political ambitions.

A longtime friend of Kocharian, Hovsepian played a key role in suppressing last spring's opposition campaign for regime change and, like many other top law-enforcement officials in Armenia, he has extensive business interests. He has also been quietly building his own political base through a supposedly apolitical organization called Nig-Aparan. The group unites prominent individuals who are originally from the former Aparan district in central Armenia. Among them are several parliament deputies, including two members of a leading opposition party. Nig-Aparan's vigorous election campaign was construed by many Armenian analysts as a sign that Hovsepian sees himself as potential presidential material.

The Armenian Constitution bars the president of the republic from holding the post for more than two five-year terms. A package of constitutional amendments drafted recently by Kocharian and the three parties represented in his coalition cabinet (including Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir party) would not abolish this restriction. Parliament is expected to discuss the proposed amendments later this year, after which they will be put to a referendum in July 2005.

Kocharian's most logical choice of successor seems his hitherto closest associate and former comrade in arms in the Karabakh war, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who is acknowledged to be the second most powerful man in Armenia. But there is mounting speculation about friction between the two men. Some commentators have suggested that Kocharian wants Hovsepian to gain greater political clout and serve as a counterweight or even an alternative to Sarkisian. It is unclear why he would oppose a Sarkisian presidency, though.

Baghdasarian was regarded as a strong candidate for the role of president-in-waiting last year, when Kocharian and Sarkisian lobbied hard for his election as chairman of the newly elected National Assembly. But the 36-year-old populist's failure to condemn unequivocally the opposition drive to force Kocharian to step down was thought to have lost him all stock with the presidential administration. The fact that Baghdasarian managed to get his way in the Kotayk by-election suggests that he is still a force to be reckoned with.

A broadcast by a tribe in eastern Khost Province has warned its members to cast their vote for Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai or face retribution, AFP reported on 24 September. "Vote for President Hamid Karzai [in the 9 October election], or we will burn your houses down," was the message broadcast by the Terezay tribe, a small Pashtun tribe numbering between 120,000 to 150,000. The broadcast on local radio warned all Terezays "including males and females," to vote for Karzai since "he is the only suitable person for the presidential post." A Terezay tribal elder, Wakil Sayyed Anwar, told AFP that 300 tribal chiefs jointly drafted the threatening statement. "No one from our tribe should ignore the decision," Anwar said. "We are grateful for those who support us, but we want a peaceful and democratic election and we request our brothers and sisters not to violate the process and respect each others' opinions, ideas, and wishes," Karzai campaign spokesman Hamid Elmi told AFP, stopping short of condemning the threatening message. AT

A statement from the neo-Taliban, published by the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on 21 September, warns Afghans not to vote in the upcoming elections. The statement entitled "Announcement for Afghan Mojahed Muslims," says, "Delegations from Karzai's puppet government of occupied Afghanistan have arrived in your villages and are asking you to vote for them." These delegations "are tricking you under false pretenses," the statement adds. According to the statement, by casting their votes in the elections, Afghans will help damage Islam and help "expand Christianity." The statement warns that those who do not abide by the teachings of the Koran, "will soon see a reaction" to their acts and they are to be blamed for the consequences of their voting. AT

Anwar al-Haq Ahadi, leader of the Afghan Mellat (Nation) party on 23 September, voiced his support for Chairman Karzai, Hindukosh News Agency reported. Speaking to party members at a gathering held in the Tribal Affairs Department in Jalalabad, capital of eastern Nangarhar Province, Ahadi pledged to promote Karzai's presidential bid. Ahadi currently serves as the governor of Da Afghanistan Bank, the country's central bank. AT

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi reassured his German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, on 23 September that Iran intends to continue its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA. The discussion took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Kharrazi added that Iran wants to resolve any outstanding issues, and he reminded Fischer that Iran's suspension of uranium-enrichment activities was voluntary. France's Michel Barnier relayed an "absolutely firm" message in his meeting with Kharrazi, an unnamed French diplomat told AFP on 22 September. "He told him that he had to dispel all suspicions over Iran's nuclear program and return to the spirit of the Tehran accords." The accords were signed in October 2003, when the British, French, and German foreign ministers visited Tehran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 October 2003, and for the full text, see 2003.shtml ). Kharrazi told Iranian state television on 23 September that he also met with British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and other European counterparts. Kharrazi said he told them that Iran has the right to use nuclear technology peacefully, and he stressed that the only way to solve problems is through dialogue. BS

An unspecified number of parliamentarians have submitted a draft bill saying that the Iranian government must submit its notification of withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the Iranian nuclear case is not concluded by the time of the IAEA board of governors meeting in November, "Etemad" reported on 22 September. The legislation said that the most recent board of governors resolution on Iran "intends to impose illegal conditions and unreasonable bribe-like demands from the United States and its allies." The bill, it went on to say, aims to defend Iran's "independence and national sovereignty and security." Alaedin Borujerdi, head of the legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on 21 September that there is no bill calling for withdrawal from the NPT on the legislative agenda, IRNA reported. BS

"Iran has replaced Saddam Hussein as the world's No. 1 exporter of terror, hate, and instability," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the UN General Assembly on 23 September, according to the Israeli government press office. "Terror, Islamic fundamentalism, and Iranian nuclear ambition" were at one time seen as Israeli concerns but now the international community is united in its opposition to weapons of mass destruction and terror," he said. "The international community now realizes that Iran -- with missiles that can reach London, Paris, Berlin, and southern Russia -- does not only pose a threat to the security of Israel, but to the security and stability of the whole world," Shalom said. He went on to encourage the General Assembly to deal with Iranian and Syrian involvement with terrorism and Syria's occupation of Lebanon. BS

Columnist Hussein Safar-Harandi writes in the 22 September "Kayhan" that what he found in reviewing 10 years of newspaper archives on the Assembly of Experts "is completely devoid of any sort of news value." The assembly is a body of 89 popularly elected clerics tasked with monitoring the supreme leader's performance, and it held its semi-annual meeting on 19-21 September. The news reports consist mostly of selections of the official speeches at the meeting, Safar-Harandi wrote, and these are "chiefly cliched indications of everyday matters." People should know about the "pious life of their leader," about his austerity, and about his reluctance to spend public funds. The public would therefore be more willing to question other public officials about their needless expenditures. BS

. Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi appeared before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on 23 September and said he is confident that skeptics will be proved wrong and that Iraq is on the road to stability and democracy, international media reported the same day. Allawi, who was greeted with a standing ovation, expressed his gratitude for the decision to topple Saddam Hussein. Appearing with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House the same day, Allawi said that of Iraq's 18 provinces, "14 to 15 are completely safe" and that only three provinces had "pockets of terrorists." The Iraqi leader also sought to allay concerns that the elections planned for early 2005 will be postponed. "I know that some have speculated, even doubted, whether this date can be met," Allawi said. "So, let me be absolutely clear: Elections will occur in Iraq on time in January because Iraqis want elections on time." EA

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 23 September and said that the security situation may prevent complete elections from being held, Reuters reported the same day. "If there were to be an area where the extremists focused during the election period, and an election was not possible in that area at that time, so be it. You have the rest of the election and you go on. Life's not perfect," Rumsfeld said. Elaborating on the election scenario, Rumsfeld said, "Let's say you tried to have an election and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country. But in some places you couldn't because the violence was too great. Well, so be it," he said. EA

The Tikrit Bridge was reopened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on 22 September, "The Washington Post" reported on 23 September. A key transportation link, the two-lane bridge spans the Tigris River and connects Tikrit and Kirkuk. The bridge was damaged 18 months ago and is the third that the U.S. Agency for International Development has repaired. The work was performed by U.S. government contractor Bechtel. Although Tikrit was a hotbed of support for the former regime and the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, work on the bridge took 11 months, progressed smoothly, and was not affected by the insurgency. Despite the death of a U.S. Marine 5 kilometers south of Tikrit, a mood of optimism pervaded the event. "We are waiting for more promising projects in the future," Tikrit Governor Hamad Hamud Shaqti said in a speech marking the event. EA

U.S. General John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, told reporters on 22 September after a closed-door briefing of U.S. Congress members on Iraq that the number of troops in Iraq will need to increase before the January elections, AFP reported on 23 September. "I think we will need more troops than we currently have to secure the election process," Abizaid said. Abizaid expressed hope that the necessary troops would come from Iraq. "It is our belief that those troops will be Iraqi troops. And they may be additional international troops that arrive to help out, as well, as part of the United Nations mission," he said. "And so I don't foresee a need for more American troops, but we can't discount it." Meanwhile, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 24 September that troop levels will be temporarily increased as part of Pentagon rotation plans. President Bush said that Abizaid has not asked for more troops, but Bush would "listen to him" if a request were issued, AP reported on 23 September. EA

New Zealand officials said on 23 September that its military contingent in Iraq will return home, AFP reported the same day. New Zealand had sent 61 army engineers to Iraq who were based in Al-Basrah. Officials said the servicemen, who have been in Iraq for one year, were due to leave by the end of the month. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said it is doubtful that more military personnel will be sent to Iraq. "I can't see that at this time. I think Iraq is just too difficult and too dangerous," she said. EA