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Newsline - January 27, 2005


PACE CRITICIZES RUSSIA'S HANDLING OF YUKOS...
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg adopted a resolution on 26 January harshly criticizing the Russian authorities for their handling of the Yukos affair and calling the arrest of top Yukos executives an "attempt by authorities in Russia to silence political opponents," RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The author of PACE's Yukos report, former German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger, said in an interview with RFE/RL that her mandate focused on the arrests, court proceedings, and imprisonment of Yukos executives Mikhail Khodorkovskii, Platon Lebedev, and Aleksei Pichugin, whose rights she said had been violated. Meanwhile, Duma Deputy Valerii Grebennikov (Unified Russia), a member of Russia's PACE mission, said that Russia should respond to PACE by not paying one-quarter of its 24 million euro ($29 million) fee to the organization, gazeta.ru reported 26 January. VY

...AS PROSECUTOR-GENERAL THREATENS NEW INDICTMENT AGAINST KHODORKOVSKII
Speaking in the Duma on 26 January, Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov said that his office might file additional charges against Khodorkovskii, the jailed ex-head of Yukos, RIA-Novosti reported. Moreover, he said the investigation of Yukos is continuing and further Yukos employees could be called to testify in court. Meanwhile, Yukos management denied comments made by British PACE member Malcolm Bruce, who said on 26 January in Strasbourg that members of the Yukos board of directors have asked for political asylum in the United Kingdom, RBK reported. An unnamed Yukos spokesman said that no one on the board of directors has sought asylum in Britain. "Bruce's words were misinterpreted, as he likely was talking about a possibility, but not a fact," the spokesman said. VY

RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT REJECTS U.S. NOTIFICATION ABOUT YUKOS TRIAL IN TEXAS
The Russian government has refused to receive an official notification about a Yukos-based lawsuit against it in a Houston bankruptcy court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 20, and 21 December 2004) that was sent to Moscow by the U.S. State Department, gazeta.ru reported 26 January. In accordance with U.S. law, a foreign plaintiff must be informed that it is being prosecuted. The case in the Houston court was initiated by Yukos and is seeking $20 billion from the Russian government to compensate for lost assets that it considers "illegally seized." In a note to U.S. diplomats, the Russian government said it is returning U.S. notification of the case because of differences in the laws of the two countries. Meanwhile, the Russian government plans to continue to sell Yukos assets, Interfax reported on 25 January. The next unit to be auctioned off is Samaraneftegas, which produces 35-40 percent of Yukos's remaining output. VY

PROSECUTOR-GENERAL: CRIMINAL CASE AGAINST TYMOSHENKO WILL BE NOT CLOSED
At the same Duma session on 26 January, Ustinov said that the criminal case involving Ukrainian Prime Minister-designate Yuliya Tymoshenko, who is accused by Russian investigators of giving multimillion-dollar bribes to Russian military officials "in exchange for illegal actions in the interests of [a] Ukrainian company," will not be closed, the Prosecutor-General's Office said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 9 December 2004), RosBalt reported. "The case will be investigated in accordance with Russian legislation, nothing more, nothing less," he noted. Ustinov added that a Russian court could issue an arrest warrant for Tymoshenko and in that case she could be detained by police if she travelled to Russia. Such a scenario was discussed during the Moscow meeting on 24 January between President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2005), newsinfo.ru reported. The website claimed that Yushchenko was satisfied by Putin's explanation of the situation, though it did not elaborate. VY

ST. PETERSBURG LEGISLATURE ASKS CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO EXAMINE BENEFITS REFORM
The St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly on 26 January passed a resolution asking the Constitutional Court to rule on the government's controversial reform to convert most in-kind social benefits to cash payments, fontanka.ru reported. The legislature's appeal claims that compensation being offered to the disabled, World War II veterans, and survivors of the siege of Leningrad is not adequate compensation for the in-kind benefits that they have lost. Deputies passed the resolution after about 1,000 protesters, led by the Communist Party, Yabloko, and the National Bolshevik Party, demonstrated outside the legislature. Demonstrators also called for the Supreme Court to overturn the December convictions of seven National Bolshevik Party activists who were sentenced to five years' imprisonment for taking over the offices of the Health and Social Development Ministry in August. According to the report, an even larger demonstration against the benefits reform is expected in St. Petersburg on 29 January. RC

COMMUNISTS CLAIM LEADING ROLL IN ORGANIZING PROTESTS
Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov on 26 January told reporters that the party is leading the national protests against the benefits reform, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" and other Russian media reported on 27 January. "We are not only participating," Zyuganov said. "We are the organizers of the demonstrations." Zyuganov also said that his party intends to continue to push for a Duma vote of no confidence in the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005). He announced that the party is organizing weekly demonstrations around the country on Saturdays, culminating in a national day of protest on 12 February. RC

ANALYST SAYS KREMLIN IS BEHIND ANTI-SEMITIC LETTER
Stanislav Belkovskii, director of the National Strategy Institute, said he believes that a letter written by Duma deputies seeking a ban of some Jewish organizations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 January 2005) is a provocation organized by the presidential administration, apn.ru reported on 26 January. The goal of the letter, he said, is to compromise the leadership of the Communist (KPRF) and Motherland parties, who are the main organizers of the demonstrations against the monetization of in-kind social benefits. Belkovskii said a second goal of the letter is to use the issue of anti-Semitism to alienate the intelligentsia from these parties. Finally, the goal of the letter is also to show the West that those who go against Putin's economic policies are dangerous extremists, so the West should back Putin as a guarantor against chauvinist forces gaining power, Belkovskii said. VY

GOVERNMENT CONTINUES TO MODIFY BENEFITS REFORM IN RESPONSE TO UNREST...
The government could increase compensation payments for lost social benefits as early as August, an unnamed government source told ITAR-TASS on 26 January. According to the source, the Duma has asked the Finance Ministry to come up with a plan for indexing the payments by August and to increase payments in line with inflation on a regular basis. The Interior Ministry announced on 26 January that it will raise police salaries by 50 percent to compensate personnel for lost in-kind benefits, Interfax reported. The ministry issued a statement saying that the reform stripped police personnel of the right to free public transportation and of exemptions from property taxes, but that other in-kind social benefits for them remain intact. "The main part of the social-benefits packages has been preserved," a ministry statement read. RC

...AS PUBLIC OVERWHELMINGLY THINKS REFORM WAS MUFFED
Eighty-one percent of Russians feel that the government has botched the social-benefits reform, according to a new poll by the Levada Analytical Center, Interfax reported on 26 January. Fifty-seven percent of those polled oppose the reform in principle, while 33 percent support it. About 41 percent said that they support the wave of protests that has swept the country in recent weeks, while another 41 percent said they understand the protestors but do not support the protests, and just 10 percent said they oppose the aims of the protesters. Forty-one percent of respondents blame the federal government for the crisis, while 31 percent blame President Putin and 22 percent blame the Duma. Twenty-nine percent of respondents agreed that the ministers who prepared the reform should be dismissed, while 20 percent said the entire government should step down and 11 percent called for the dismissal of some regional governors and local officials. Nine percent urged that those responsible for organizing the protests be prosecuted. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said they do not plan to participate in future demonstrations, while 26 percent said that they will. RC

DRUNKS TO PAY FOR BENEFITS COMPENSATION IN TULA
City legislators in Tula voted on 26 January to shut down the city's four facilities for sobering up people found intoxicated in public and to use the 12 million rubles ($400,000) saved to compensate pensioners and other benefits recipients for their lost in-kind benefits, ITAR-TASS reported. About 6,000 people passed through the facilities for drunks in 2004 and the city, population 500,000, has an estimated 35,000 alcoholics, local officials reported. About 2,000 people protested against the benefits reform in Saransk on 26 January, ITAR-TASS reported. Last week, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov and presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko were in Saransk and praised the Mordovia government's implementation of the benefits reform. RC

PUTIN'S INFORMATION ADVISER SAYS RUSSIAN CNN SHOULD REPLACE TV-TSENTR
Mikhail Lesin, presidential adviser for the mass media and mass communications, said Russia needs more specialized television channels and, especially, a Russian-language 24-hour news channel similar to the U.S.-based CNN, lenizdat.ru and Ekho Moskvy reported on 24 and 26 January, respectively. Lesin suggested TV-Tsentr frequency could be used for the "Russian CNN." Russia has a 24-hour business news channel, RBK, which is similar to English-language Bloomberg TV. Media observers note that TV-Tsentr, which is headed by Oleg Poptsov, is one of the last national broadcast outlets that regularly offers critical commentary on Kremlin policies. In December, under pressure from the government, the channel laid off leading journalist Stanislav Kucher, who became chief editor of the Russian-language "National Geographic." Meanwhile, Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov said on 26 January that he supports the idea of creating a national Orthodox television channel, ITAR-TASS reported. Sokolov said "television should help reintroduce lost spiritual values to the family" and added that many social issues should be examined "through the prism of Orthodoxy." VY/RC

CHIEF PROSECUTOR CALLS FOR CONFISCATING PROPERTY OF CORRUPT OFFICIALS
Prosecutor-General Ustinov on 26 January told the Federation Council that he advocates restoring the Soviet-era punishment of confiscation of property as a tool in the fight against official corruption, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. He said that such a move would be in keeping with a United Nations convention on fighting corruption, to which Russia is a signatory. Ustinov told legislators that corruption is out of control, with 39,000 alleged violations registered in 2004. Prosecutors investigated 7,000 criminal cases of corruption last year involving damages of more than 9 billion rubles ($300 million). RC

ECONOMY GREW BY 6.9 PERCENT IN 2004...
Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 6.9 percent in 2004, according to preliminary figures released by the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, Interfax reported on 26 January. GDP rose by 7.3 percent in 2003. "The fourth quarter was quite positive," Andrei Klepach, head of the ministry's Economic Forecasting Department, told the news agency. "[The fourth quarter] did not see a continuation of the halt in growth, but rather posted a noticeable rise in pace." Klepach said that the slowdown was a result of a general lack of confidence in the economy and of the fact that the economy needs restructuring. He said that high oil prices are no longer contributing to economic growth because proceeds above $30-$40 per barrel are directed to the stabilization fund. He said increasing the volume of exports is more important for growth than higher oil prices, but he predicted only a 2-3 percent rise in oil exports this year. The ministry is currently forecasting 5.8 percent GDP growth for 2005. RC

...AS WAGE ARREARS FALL BY HALF...
Total wage arrears in Russia fell by 50 percent in 2004 to 12.2 billion rubles ($407 million), the Federal Statistics Service asserted on 26 January, ITAR-TASS reported. State-sector arrears fell by 55.5 percent to 1 billion rubles. The state currently owes wages to 1.9 million workers, the service reported, with the federal government owing 16.4 percent of the total and local and regional governments owing 83.6 percent. RC

...AND AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTION RISES SLIGHTLY
Agricultural production rose by 1.6 percent in 2004 over 2003, the Federal Statistics Service reported on 26 January, according to Prime-TASS. According to the report, harvests rose considerably but were offset by declining livestock production. Grain output was up 16.2 percent to 78 million tons, 5.5 percent higher than 2003 on per-hectare basis. According to the report, the Institute of Economics of the Academy of Sciences is forecasting a drop in agricultural production of 2.5 percent in 2005 due to continuing problems in the livestock sector and less-favorable weather forecasts. RC

DEMOGRAPHIC DECLINE CONTINUED IN 2004
The population of Russia declined by 683,000 in the first 11 months of 2004, Interfax reported on 26 January, citing the Federal Statistics Service. Natural population loss was 716,100 people, offset by a slight net migration gain of nearly 33,000. Only 17 of the 89 subjects of the federation registered natural population increases. RC

PENSIONER WINS CASE IN STRASBOURG
Novosibirsk pensioner Lidiya Pravednaya has won a case in the European Court of Human Rights in a case that could compel the government to pay compensation to thousands of pensioners across the country, REN-TV reported on 26 January. The court ruled that the Federal Pension Fund violated a 1998 law that established procedures for determining pensions and that Russian courts had failed to protect the rights of pensioners. The court ordered the government to pay Pravednaya the approximately 200-250 rubles per month that she has been underpaid since the law took effect, regions.ru reported on 26 January. Pravednaya said that a separate appeal for damages is currently pending before the Strasbourg court. According to regions.ru, the case is the first victory of a Russian pensioner in a case against the government in the European Court of Human Rights, but several similar cases are pending. RC

MINISTER OUTLINES 2005 PRIVATIZATION PLAN
The government expects to earn 40 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) from its 2005 privatization program, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said on 26 January, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the statement, the government plans to sell off stakes in 566 joint-stock companies and 1,324 state-run enterprises. The plan includes the sale of a 75 percent stake in Transkreditbank, almost 21 percent of the St. Petersburg shipbuilder Severnaya verf, and 11 percent of the Ulyanovsk Automobile Works. RC

ACCUSED LAWMAKER COMMITS SUICIDE IN JAIL
Yekaterinburg city legislator Aleksandr Khabarov committed suicide on 27 January by hanging himself in a city pretrial-detention facility, Interfax and other Russian media reported. Khabarov had been arrested on 14 December in his apartment on suspicion of extortion. On 19 January, he was denied bail after prosecutors argued that he might attempt to obstruct justice by tampering with witnesses or running away. He left a wife and four children. RC

GAZPROM MANAGER TO HEAD ARBITRATION COURT
The Federation Council on 26 January confirmed Gazprom-Media First Deputy General Director Anton Ivanov as the new chairman of the Supreme Arbitration Court, Russian media reported. Ivanov replaces Veniamin Yakovlev, who had to step down in December because of a new law setting 65 as the mandatory retirement age for judges. "The Moscow Times" reported on 27 January that Ivanov, 39, was born near St. Petersburg and graduated from the law faculty of Leningrad State University in 1987. From 1997 to 1999, he headed the St. Petersburg branch of the Justice Ministry, but after that little is known about his work until July 2004 when he was unexpectedly named first deputy general director and a board member of Gazprom-Media. He has never served as a judge before, "Izvestiya" reported on 27 January. Ivanov told the daily that his candidacy for the post was lobbied within the Kremlin by presidential-administration head Dmitrii Medvedev. RC

TROOPS STORM NALCHIK APARTMENT, KILL SUSPECTED MILITANTS
Russian special forces opened fire early on 27 January on the apartment in Nalchik in which up to five suspected leaders of the militant Yarmuk group had taken refuge together with two women believed to be their wives/girlfriends and a small child, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2005). The militants rejected on 26 January a police demand that they leave the building one by one and surrender, or that they allow the women and child to leave. The troops then stormed the building early on 27 January after the inmates ceased returning fire, and subsequently found the dead bodies of the five militants, kavkazweb.net reported. LF

ARMENIAN POLITICIANS DOWNPLAY PACE KARABAKH REPORT...
Representatives of Armenia's ruling three-party coalition downplayed on 26 January the implications of the report on the Karabakh conflict adopted the previous day by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2005). Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliament faction of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia, predicted that the report will not impact upon possible solutions to the conflict, while Levon Mkrtchian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun said he doubts the report will influence the mediation efforts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group. Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian for his part termed the report "flawed," but stressed at the same time that it is not legally binding. LF

...AS AZERBAIJAN PREDICTS IT WILL EXPEDITE SOLUTION TO CONFLICT
In Baku, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev described the PACE report on 26 January as "an important political step" towards securing the liberation of seven Azerbaijani districts adjacent to the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that are currently under Armenian control, AFP reported. Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry official Tahir Taghizade similarly said that the PACE report, which reaffirmed support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, "brings us closer to a solution to the conflict," AFP reported. LF

BROTHER OF FORMER AZERBAIJANI PREMIER DETAINED IN RUSSIA
In a joint operation with their Azerbaijani colleagues, Russian police have apprehended at an undisclosed location Arif Huseinov, the brother of former Prime Minister Suret Huseinov, Turan reported on 26 January. Arif Huseinov is wanted on charges of involvement in the alleged coup d'etat against then President Heidar Aliyev masterminded by Suret Huseinov. Suret Huseinov was sentenced in 1999 to life imprisonment for his imputed role in that plot, but pardoned last year by President Ilham Aliyev. A close associate of Suret Huseinov, Saday Nazarov, was arrested last week days after returning to Azerbaijan after 10 years as a political refugee in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2005). Czech NGOs have launched an appeal for Nazarov's release, CTK reported on 26 January. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT OFFERS SOUTH OSSETIA 'BROAD AUTONOMY...'
Addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe winter session in Strasbourg on 26 January, Mikheil Saakashvili said Tbilisi is prepared to grant the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia greater autonomy within Georgia than the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania has within the Russian Federation, according to the text of his speech as posted on the Georgian Foreign Ministry website (http://www.mfa.gov.ge/news.php?newsid=updates/EEpFlAEkyAIWrpvPLk.php). Saakashvili explained that Tbilisi's proposal comprises "a constitutional guarantee of autonomy, that includes the right to freely and directly elected local self governance -- including an executive branch and a parliament for South Ossetia. South Ossetia's parliament will...control...issues such as culture, education, social policy, economic policy, public order, the organization of local self governance and environmental protection." South Ossetia would also, Saakashvili said, have representatives in the national government, parliament, and judiciary. He further said Tbilisi is ready to discuss with the South Ossetian leadership "innovative ideas" including free economic zones, and to permit that leadership to tailor its economic policies to local needs. Saakashvili proposed a three-year transition period during which a mixed Georgian-Ossetian police force would be set up under the guidance of international organizations, and the South Ossetian army would be absorbed into the Georgian armed forces. He appealed to the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the EU, the U.S., and Russia to support and facilitate the peace process. LF

...WHICH SOUTH OSSETIAN PRESIDENT REJECTS
Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, dismissed President Saakashvili's offer of "broad autonomy" for South Ossetia as "an attempt to aggravate the situation," ITAR-TASS reported. He explained to journalists at a press conference in Moscow on 26 January that South Ossetia's status was fixed by a referendum in 1992 during which the population overwhelmingly voted to secede from Georgia, and that 95 percent of the population now have Russian passports and aspire to integration with the Russian Federation. Kokoity said he is ready for dialogue with Tbilisi "on equal terms," and to expand economic cooperation with Georgia, but he added that South Ossetia does not need Georgian humanitarian aid. LF

WASHINGTON EXPRESSES APPROVAL OF GEORGIAN PROPOSAL...
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on 26 January that the U.S. government welcomed President Saakashvili's proposals aimed at a peaceful solution of the conflict with South Ossetia, according to rustavi2.com on 27 January. LF

...WHILE RUSSIA REMAINS SKEPTICAL
The Russian Foreign Ministry posted an unattributed commentary on President Saakashvili's proposal to its website on 27 January, noting that the proposals "need to be studied" (http://www.ln.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/sps/37522044E9F9D0D0C3256F9600366139). The commentary blamed the Georgian authorities for the deterioration last summer in relations between Georgia and South Ossetia, and argued that it would have been "more correct and effective" for Tbilisi to draft its proposals for improving relations in consultation with Russia and South Ossetia, within the framework of the Joint Control Commission that monitors the situation in the conflict region. It further recalled that in his address to the 59th session of the UN General Assembly, President Saakashvili argued that any "serious discussion" of the future status of Georgia's breakaway regions should be preceded by confidence building measures. LF

GEORGIAN ENVOY EXCLUDED FROM UN DISCUSSION OF ABKHAZIA
Revaz Adamia, who is Georgia's ambassador to the UN, was not permitted to attend a 26 January Security Council discusstion of the situation in Abkhazia, Caucasus Press and Reuters reported. Adamia accused Russia of barring him from that discussion. LF

UN COUNTERTERRORISM COMMITTEE MEETS IN KAZAKHSTAN
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev addressed a meeting of the UN Counterterrorism Committee in Almaty on 26 January, agencies reported. Interfax-Kazakhstan quoted the president as saying, "The existing level of terrorist activity in regions that are relatively close to Kazakhstan makes it necessary to keep the security system in a state of heightened readiness." Nazarbaev also noted that Kazakhstan's parliament is preparing to vote on a draft law to combat extremism. The meeting focused on ways to undermine the financing of terrorism, the significance of multilateral and bilateral accords, and the security of airports and ports, Kazinform reported. Nazarbaev took advantage of the session to hold a number of meetings, speaking with UN Counterterrorism Committee Chairman Andrei Denisov, CIS Executive Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, and Collective Security Treaty Organization Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha. DK

KAZAKH OPPOSITION PROPOSES DRAFT CONSTITUTION
Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, chairman of the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan, presented the council's new draft constitution for Kazakhstan at a news conference in Almaty on 26 January, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Tuyakbai said that a new constitution is necessary because Kazakhstan has failed to hold free and fair presidential or parliamentary elections since gaining independence, failed to distribute the benefits of a thriving oil industry to the bulk of the population, and failed to fight corruption, "Navigator" reported. The current constitution "has allowed presidential authority to completely dominate all other state institutions," Tuyakbai said. He stressed that the draft constitution contains checks and balances to prevent the usurpation of power, affirms that natural resources belong to the people and should benefit them directly, and does not allow "the monopoly of any single political party and the creation by the state of special conditions for certain parties." The Russian text of the draft constitution can be found at http://www.navi.kz/articles/7973. DK

OUTGOING KYRGYZ SPEAKER SLAMS DRAFT LAW ON EX-ENVOYS
Abdygany Erkebaev, the outgoing speaker of Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Assembly (lower chamber of parliament), told a press conference in Bishkek on 26 January that a draft law allowing former diplomats to run in elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2005) was passed in violation of parliamentary procedure, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. "At this stage there is no future for this bill because it was adopted with some irregularities," Erkebaev said. "Now the issue of diplomats can be resolved by one institution only, and that is the Constitutional Court." Presidential spokesman Abdil Segizbaev seconded the speaker's views in a news conference the same day. Opposition lawmakers, who strongly supported the bill and insist that it was passed in compliance with parliamentary norms, have urged President Askar Akaev to sign it into law as quickly as possible. DK

KYRGYZ COURT FINES OPPOSITION POLITICIAN FOR DEMONSTRATION
A court in Bishkek on 26 January fined Ishengul Boljurova, leader of the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, 1,000 soms ($24) for helping to organize an unsanctioned demonstration in the Kyrgyz capital on 19 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2005), Interfax reported. Calling the case "fabricated," Boljurova described it as "the start of persecuting the opposition in Kyrgyzstan." Several other opposition figures face administrative charges in connection with the 19 January rally. DK

TAJIK PARLIAMENT PASSES RUSSIA ACCORDS
Tajikistan's Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower chamber of parliament) ratified five agreements between Tajikistan and Russia on 26 January, ITAR-TASS reported. The agreements, which were signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Dushanbe on 16 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 October 2004), establish a permanent Russian military base in Tajikistan. Russian diplomats in Tajikistan hailed the ratification of the agreements, Interfax reported; a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Dushanbe told the news agency that they will help to spur Russian investment in Tajikistan. DK

BELARUSIAN GOVERNMENT SUGGESTS ADJUSTING NEW VAT RULES
Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski reported on 26 January that the government has introduced a proposal that VAT be reduced on certain goods from 18 percent to 10 percent, Interfax reported on 26 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2005). According a report from the agency the previous day, Russian publishers have stopped importing books to Belarus following the introduction of the new rules for collecting VAT this month, because Belarusian customers cannot afford to pay 18 percent more for books and the publishers do not want to reduce their prices by 18 percent. Belapan reported on 26 January that Belarusian enterprise directors are "panicky" and "they may simply lose their market in Russia because their place can be taken" by a competitor. JAC

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT LAYS OUT SCHEDULE FOR PURSUING EU MEMBERSHIP...
Viktor Yushchenko said in a BBC interview on 26 January that Ukraine may submit an official application for membership in the EU in just a few weeks. He said that "as soon as the government" and the department dealing with European integration policy is established, "We will have a separate deputy premier dealing with European affairs. As soon as [this] is done...we will raise the question at once." On the same day, he told reporters in Strasbourg that he hopes Ukraine will start negotiations with the EU on its associative membership in 2007, according to Interfax-Ukraine. JAC

...SAYS UKRAINE SHARES EU POSITION ON BELARUS
President Yushchenko noted in Strasbourg on 26 January that his country shares the EU's views on the situation in Belarus under the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Unian reported. He added that he was happy to see Belarusian flags during the Orange Revolution in Kyiv. He said that he spoke with some "interesting and courageous young Belarusians" who had their own pro-Yushchenko tent. Yushchenko stressed that despite the different ideological platforms of the Ukrainian and Belarusian governments, relations must remain "neighborly." Yushchenko also told reporters that he has received assurances from the Prosecutor-General's office that two criminal cases in the killing of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gondadze have been transferred to the courts, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) reported. JAC

MEDVEDCHUK EXPLAINS OPPOSITION PARTY'S PLANS...
Former presidential administration head and leader of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine-united (SPDU-o) Viktor Medvedchuk told reporters in Kyiv on 26 January that his party is now in opposition to the new government and will not accept any posts in the government or Verkhovna Rada, Interfax reported. In connection with the party's new policy, two ministers, acting Labor Minister Mykhaylo Papiyev and acting Education Minister Vasyl Kremen, have left the party, according to the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua). Medvedchuk said that his party's key priority in terms of foreign policy is to pursue Ukraine's entry in the Single Economic Space with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Donetsk Ukrayina Television reported. He added that his party opposes attempts to hasten Ukraine's integration into the EU and WTO. JAC

...AND MAINTAINS RUMORS OF HIS WEALTH GREATLY EXAGGERATED
Medvedchuk also told reporters that he "regretfully" is not a dollar billionaire as some foreign media press reports have maintained, Interfax reported. "I am a law-abiding citizen. I have been and will remain one," he declared, adding that if any criminal investigations are launched against him he will consider them "political repression against the opposition," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) reported. He said that he has no plans to leave Ukraine, nor does former President Leonid Kuchma. He declined to answer reporters' questions about whether defeated presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych is in Egypt. JAC

REGIONAL UKRAINIAN GOVERNOR TENDERS RESIGNATION
Luhansk Governor Oleksandr Yefremov has tendered his resignation, Interfax and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on 26 January. According to the oblast press service, Yefremov did so in accordance with Ukrainian legislation that requires regional governors to tender their resignations to a newly-elected president. Yefremov, 60, has served in his post since April 1998. Luhansk Oblast residents strongly supported former Premier Yanukovych in the presidential election, giving him 91 percent of their votes. JAC

KOSOVA'S PARLIAMENT CONFIRMS SERBIAN MINISTER IN OFFICE...
Kosova's parliament voted on 26 January to confirm Slavisa Petkovic of the small Citizens Initiative Srbija party as minister for returns in the cabinet of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 January 2005). The appointment was opposed by the Democratic Party of Kosova of Hashim Thaci on the grounds that Petkovic allegedly participated in a Serbian paramilitary unit during the 1998-99 conflict. In Brussels, participants in a meeting of NATO representatives and OSCE Chairman Dimitrij Rupel, who is also Slovenia's foreign minister, hailed the Kosovar parliament's vote as a good decision. PM

...WHILE PRESIDENT APPEALS FOR RECOGNITION
Addressing Kosova's parliament for the first time in 2005, President Ibrahim Rugova said that the people of Kosova want an independent, democratic, and peaceful Kosova integrated into international institutions, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 December 2004 and 7 January 2005). He appealed for international recognition of an independent Kosova in its present boundaries at the earliest possible opportunity. Rugova asked that the United States and European Union help promote regional stability and the process leading to independence. PM

ONE KOSOVAR YOUTH REPORTED DEAD AFTER ATTACK ON POLICE
A group of young ethnic Albanian men armed with rubber truncheons attacked two members of the Kosova police force on a routine patrol in Obiliq on 26 January, Prishtina dailies reported. One of the policemen fatally shot one of the attackers, who had reportedly pulled a gun, dpa noted. Both policemen were injured and taken to a hospital, where their condition is reported as stable. The motive for the attack is not known. "Koha Ditore" reported that one suspect is in police custody. PM

MACEDONIAN PREMIER MEETS ALBANIANS FROM SOUTHERN SERBIA
Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski met on 26 January with representatives of the ethnic Albanian community in the southern Serbian Presevo and Bujanovac areas to discuss the possibility of opening new border crossings to Macedonia in that region, "Dnevnik" reported. "We proposed opening three new border checkpoints, two of which will be in [Serbian] towns inhabited by Albanians and one [in a Serbian town] with a Serbian majority," Presevo Mayor Riza Halimi said. Serbian Minister for the Serbian Diaspora Vojislav Vukcevic, who is on an official visit to Macedonia, criticized the meeting, saying such consultations should also include Serbian representatives. The Macedonian government reportedly supports the formation of a so-called "micro-region" to include the municipalities Gjilan in Kosova, Presevo and Trgoviste in southern Serbia, and Kumanovo in Macedonia as a way of improving transborder cooperation. The Presevo region has been tense following the recent killing of an ethnic Albanian teenager by a Serbian border guard (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 January 2005). UB

BOSNIAN PARLIAMENT PASSES KEY REFORM LEGISLATION
The upper house of Bosnia-Herzegovina's parliament approved legislation establishing a flat value-added-tax (VAT) rate of 17 percent on all goods, which will take effect throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina on 1 July, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2004). This is the final step in a long and acrimonious process initiated by Prime Minister Adnan Terzic to introduce unified VAT rules for the entire country, which is an important element in Bosnia's hopes for closer ties to the EU. Many Bosnians fear that the new legislation, which does not include previously proposed exemptions for food and books, will spur price hikes, further reducing the already low standard of living. Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service commented on 14 December that legislation designed to bring Bosnia closer to European standards could actually serve to bring it closer to those of Africa. PM

ROMANIAN INTELLIGENCE SERVICE CHIEF ANNOUNCES INTENTION TO RESIGN...
Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) Director Radu Timofte said in an interview with Mediafax on 26 January that he will "resign when President Traian Basescu appoints a successor." Asked whether he is determined to resign, Timofte replied with a question: "Are four years not enough?" Timofte was appointed by the previous Social Democratic (PSD) government, which he represented in parliament from 1990 to 2001. President Basescu said in early January that it is of "utmost importance" that the head of one of the three secret services --the SRI, the Foreign Intelligence Service, and the Guard and Protection Service (SPP) -- remain in office, but did not specify which one. MS

...SAYS ANTIGRAFT DRIVE MIGHT PUT PRESIDENT IN DANGER...
In an interview with the Realitatea TV channel on 25 January, SRI Director Timofte said his service has taken extra precautions to protect President Basescu from an assassination attempt, Romanian dailies and international news agencies reported the next day. Timofte said the service has information that "the local mafia involved in corruption is considering hiring people from abroad" to assassinate Basescu because of the campaign he has launched against corruption, Reuters reported. Timofte added that it would be "too much" to claim that the SRI knows an attempt on Basescu's life is under way, but "maybe the fact that I am making this public will discourage them, because we show them we know certain things." The SPP, which is in charge of the president's security, said on 26 January that "while there always are indications of threats directed at the head of state, their frequency has increased as of late," Mediafax reported. Presidential spokeswoman Adriana Saftoiu said Basescu was informed last week about the threats, but this did not prompt a change in his agenda. MS

...AND ACKNOWLEDGES TAPPING JOURNALISTS' PHONES...
In his 25 January interview with Realitatea TV, SRI Director Timofte acknowledged the tapping of journalists' phones but said this was done only in exceptional cases, when national security is concerned. Timofte said this happened recently in the case of two journalists who work for foreign publications and who "collaborate with foreign intelligence services" that pay them. Timofte also said that the tapping of private phones follows the law and is only undertaken after approval by a magistrate. He said in 2004 the SRI tapped 1,259 private phones, the Interior Ministry 1,036, and prosecutors ordered the tapping of 646 phones, according to a 27 January report in the daily "Ziua." MS

...AS INTERIOR MINISTRY OFFICIAL TESTIFIES IN PARLIAMENTARY INVESTIGATION OF TAPPING
Interior Ministry Intelligence Service (DGIPI) head Virgil Ardelean told a joint meeting of the two parliamentary chambers' Defense committees on 26 January that his service asked prosecutors in 2003 to authorize the telephone surveillance of the Mediafax and the AM Press news agencies, AP and Mediafax reported. The committees decided to investigate allegations on the surveillance following a report published in the daily "Ziua" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005). Ardelean said the National Anticorruption Prosecution denied the DGIPI permission to do so and the request was never resubmitted. Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu said in reaction that submitting such a request is an "extremely serious offense that must be punished," Mediafax reported. MS

FORMER PSD 'BARON' DETAINED ON CORRUPTION CHARGES IN ROMANIA
Nicolae Mischie, the former Gorj County PSD local organization chairman, was detained by police on 26 January on corruption charges, Mediafax and AP reported. Mischie is one of the most famous PSD "local barons," known for acting with impunity on the local level. He is suspected of abuse of office, accepting bribes, embezzling some $68,000, and of awarding himself a university degree later used to become a professor at a local university. MS

TRANSDNIESTER VOWS TO KEEP CONTROL OF MOLDOVAN VILLAGE PLOTS
Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov said on 26 January that Transdniester will never agree to give up control over the land farmed by the residents of Dorotcaia, Infotag reported. The village is situated on the eastern bank of the Dniester River but is under Moldovan jurisdiction. The Dorotcaia farmers' land, however, is in Transdniester, on the other side of the Tiraspol-Dubasari road. The conflict has been repeatedly and unsuccessfully addressed by the Joint Control Commission. The separatist authorities say the 8,000 hectares of agricultural land produce an annual income of between $1.5 million and $3 million and are demanding that the villagers pay Tiraspol taxes for their crops, which they claim are being "smuggled" out of Transdniester. Last year they set up a customs checkpoint close to the village, which Moldova insists should be removed. MS

CHECHNYA SPELLS OUT DEMANDS TO MOSCOW
The long-awaited draft power-sharing agreement between Chechnya and the Russian federal government is finally ready for signing, Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Djabrailov announced on 18 January -- almost two years after Russian President Vladimir Putin dubbed it the logical next step in the process of "normalizing" Chechnya following the adoption in a controversial referendum of a new constitution for the region.

But the main provisions of the seven-page agreement, especially the financial concessions Chechnya demands, are so exorbitant as to raise the question: does Moscow really believe that the problem of Chechnya can be solved simply by throwing money at it? Or is the draft intended to serve as a basis for negotiations in which Grozny too will be required to make substantial concessions -- even if those concessions are not publicized?

According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 January, the main provisions of the agreement include granting Chechnya the status of a "region of intensive economic development" for a period of 10 years, during which time the republican government will have exclusive rights to the land and mineral resources, including the right to develop and sell those resources. In addition, all taxes collected in Chechnya will be transferred to the republic's budget; residents of Chechnya will be provided with free electricity and gas; Chechnya will receive annually a credit of 3 billion rubles ($100 million); and any intervention into Chechnya's internal affairs by Russian "force agencies" will be forbidden.

Those last two provisions will almost certainly serve to strengthen the position of First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, who is already widely suspected of using budget funds for his own purposes, and whose so-called presidential security force engages with impunity in the abduction for ransom, torture, and killing of Chechen civilians. At present, the federal forces in Chechnya constitute the sole constraint on the "kadyrovtsy"; removing that constraint would be tantamount to granting Kadyrov carte blanche to perpetrate unlimited human rights violations.

The draft treaty also entitles Chechen survivors of Stalin's repressions to a lump sum comprising 1,000 times the minimum monthly wage for the loss of housing (a total of 720,000 rubles, or $25,762) and 5,000 times the minimum monthly wage for the loss of other possessions. By contrast, the federal law on the rehabilitation of victims of the Stalin purges foresees maximum compensation of 4,000 rubles, "Vremya novostei" noted on 24 January.

Finally, the draft treaty raises the question of revising the demarcation of the border between the republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia agreed upon in 1993 by the then presidents of the two republics, Djokhar Dudaev and Ruslan Aushev. According to "Vremya novostei," Chechnya hopes to recover territories in Ingushetia's Sunzha and Malgobek raions that were part of Chechnya prior to the amalgamation in January 1934 of the Chechen and Ingush autonomous oblasts to form the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Oblast (which was upgraded in December 1936 to the status of an autonomous Soviet socialist republic).

Former Chechen Prime Minister Mikhail Babich, now a State Duma deputy, told "Vremya novostei" that the demands enumerated in the draft treaty exceed by far the most intemperate claims made by the late President Dudaev. But Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 and 25 January as expressing doubts that Moscow would agree to all the Chechen leadership's demands, as doing so would be "a defeat" in the eyes of Russia's political and military elite, and of President Putin personally. Malashenko predicted a process of horse-trading in which Ramzan Kadyrov would be forced to make unspecified concessions. Mercator Group Director Dmitrii Oreshkin pointed out that if Moscow agrees to the Chechen leadership's conditions, it would unleash a storm of protest from other federation subjects objecting that Chechnya should receive such largesse while they receive proportionately far less in subsidies despite their loyalty to the Russian leadership.

On 25 January, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted unnamed Kremlin administration officials as confirming that the treaty would merely designate Chechnya a "zone of special economic development" and provide unspecified tax breaks. And in what may be an attempt at saving face, Djabrailov told the paper, "So far there has been no reaction at all from the Kremlin." But he also said that the draft he had described was simply the final version as proposed by the Chechen side, and that "it still needs to be worked and worked at" -- a process that the paper likened to "bargaining in a mine field." Meanwhile, Chechen Finance Minister Eli Isaev told a cabinet session on 24 January that Chechnya's annual budget for 2005 has been cut by 400 million rubles in connection with the planned streamlining of the republican government, kavkaznet.web reported.

ISAF TO EXPAND TO COVER ALL OF AFGHANISTAN
The outgoing commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), French Lieutenant General Jean-Louis Py, said in Kabul on 26 January that the force will expand to cover the entire territory of Afghanistan, Pajhwak News Agency reported. Py said that in the next phase of its expansion, ISAF will deploy units in Herat, Farah, Ghor, and Kandahar provinces in the spring or summer, after which it will cover all the Afghan provinces. Py did not give a timetable for the final expansion of ISAF. In February, Turkey will take over command of ISAF from Eurocorps, a European force made up of troops from Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Spain. AT

TEN NEO-TALIBAN REPORTEDLY KILLED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Esa Jan, military commander of Ghorak District of Kandahar Province, said that government forces killed 10 members of the neo-Taliban on 25 January, Pajhwak News Agency reported on 26 January. Two Afghan government soldiers were also killed and one wounded. According to Esa Jan, government forces launched a retaliatory attack on a neo-Taliban camp following an attempt on the life of Ghorak security commander Azim Khan on 24 January by the neo-Taliban. Azim Khan survived the attack, but two of his bodyguards were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2005). Lutfollah Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, while confirming an attack on the militia's camp, told Pajhwak that only two militiamen were wounded. AT

U.S. TO DONATE HELICOPTERS FOR AFGHAN COUNTERNARCOTICS CAMPAIGN
The U.S. Defense Department will donate eight helicopters to help Afghanistan in its counternarcotics efforts, Afghanistan Television reported on 26 January. According to an unidentified Interior Ministry spokesman, two of the aircraft will be handed over to the Afghan side in the near future. Recently, the United States backed away from plans to destroy Afghanistan's opium-poppy fields using aerial spraying of herbicides (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005). The Afghanistan TV report did not clarify whether the Afghan authorities will be using the helicopters for spraying or in other counternarcotics operations. AT

ELECTRICITY DELIVERY FROM UZBEKISTAN RESUMES
Following an interruption in the delivery of electricity from Uzbekistan to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, the flow of electricity was resumed on 26 January, Afghan Voice Agency reported. An Afghan Energy Ministry press release indicated that, based on an understanding signed between Kabul and Tashkent, the agreement by which Uzbekistan supplies electricity to Mazar-e Sharif has to be extended annually. AT

AFGHAN PRESIDENT ARRIVES IN IRAN
Hamid Karzai and an Afghan delegation arrived in Tehran on 26 January, Radio Farda reported. On their first day they met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Karzai and Khatami are scheduled to inaugurate the 122-kilometer road between Iran's Dogharun and the Afghan city Herat, as well as a 132-kilowatt power station that will supply Herat with electricity, Radio Farda reported. Rangin Dadfar, a German-based expert on Afghanistan, told Radio Farda that three issues are important for the two countries: trade and economics, Iran's promise of $500 million for reconstruction in Afghanistan, and the repatriation of Afghan refugees. Dadfar added that Tehran will seek reassurance from Karzai that U.S. military forces will not use bases in Afghanistan to attack Iran. He said the outposts Iran built along the Afghan border are important for counternarcotics activity. Khamenei told Karzai that Iran would like to see an end to the so-called "occupation of Afghanistan," IRNA reported. He added that stability in Afghanistan will have a regional impact. BS

IRANIAN REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS READY FOR THE U.S...
The commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Major-General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, said on 26 January in Tehran that Iran's importance in the region cannot be ignored by the U.S., Radio Farda and IRNA reported. He added, "The IRGC will strongly stand up to U.S. greed in case of any conspiracy to that effect." Deputy IRGC Commander Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr told a gathering of clerics in Isfahan Province on 26 January that the U.S. recognizes Iran is neither Afghanistan, which had no government or army, nor Iraq, whose government had no legitimacy or popular support, Fars News Agency reported. He said that Iran has the most powerful military in the region. "We don't welcome war or bloodshed but if Americans do something wrong they will get such a response that they will never walk straight again," Zolqadr said. He added that Iran will retaliate outside its own borders and recognizes no limits when it comes to self-defense. BS

...AS IS CONVENTIONAL MILITARY
Major-General Hassan Firuzabadi, commander of the regular armed forces, said in Tehran on 26 January that the U.S. does not see the realities of Mideast events because its officials are "preoccupied with the desire of gaining access to Middle East energy resources and combating the rising support for Islam in the world," ISNA reported. He went on to say that American threats only unite the Iranian people and have increased the readiness of the armed forces. BS

IRAQIS IN IRAN EXPLAIN WHY THEY REGISTER TO VOTE
A total of 60,908 Iraqis living in Iran registered to vote in the upcoming elections, according to the International Organization for Migration's Out-of-Country Voting (OCV) Program website (http://www.iraqocv.org/php/index.php?lang=eng). The head of the OCV program in Iran, Kate Pryce, said on 26 January that she is "extremely pleased" with the number of registrants, AFP reported. IOM estimates that there are 100,000 to 120,000 eligible Iraqi voters in Iran. An Iraqi living in Iran told Radio Farda that he will vote in order to guarantee the independence and freedom of his country. He added that he wants Iraqis to live with the same tranquility and comfort that exists in other countries. Another Iraqi, who works as a trader in the Tehran bazaar, told Radio Farda: "The best thing I can do is participate in the elections, because the future of an independent Iraq is in our hands. If we do not go and vote then it is finished and gone." BS

VIOLENT ATTACKS CONTINUE ACROSS IRAQ...
Insurgents stepped up their attacks on 27 January in their effort to thwart Iraq's elections, international media reported. An Iraqi military convoy was targeted in a bomb attack in Al-Mahmudiyah, killing five and wounding 15, hospital officials said, according to Reuters. In Ba'qubah, a car bomb was detonated outside the local governorate headquarters as the governor met inside with a local tribal chief, the news agency reported, and three policemen were reported killed in a separate attack. Two explosions were reported in Al-Ramadi, Al-Arabiyah reported. It is unclear what the targets of the attacks were. A car bomb detonated at a checkpoint outside the National Guard headquarters in Kirkuk on 27 January; it was the third bomb to be detonated in the city in the past two days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2005). Seven Iraqis were killed and 10 wounded in a suicide bomb attack targeting the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office in Sinjar on 26 January; militants loyal to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the bombing of the KDP office in Ba'qubah earlier that day. KR

...AS IRAQI TOWNS IMPOSE STRICT SECURITY MEASURES
The Kirkuk Governorate announced on 26 January that new security measures will be in place ahead of the 30 January elections, KurdSat television reported. The measures include a parking ban around polling stations from 29-30 January; the ban applies to government vehicles as well as civilian cars. Roads in and out of the city will be closed from 8 p.m. on 29 January until 6 a.m. on 31 January, and a citywide curfew will be in place from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. effective immediately. All gas stations will also be closed on 29-30 January. In Karbala, officials announced on 26 January that an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew will be in place until further notice, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Hotel guests and visitors to the city were asked to vacate the city, and Karbala police chief Major General Abbas Fadil al-Hasani said that police patrols in the city are working to evacuate nonresidents. KR

IRAQI PREMIER MEETS WITH LOCAL GOVERNORS, STRESSES IMPORTANCE OF VOTE
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi met with the governors of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah Al-Din and Al-Sulaymaniyah on 26 January to stress the importance of getting out the vote, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Allawi told the officials that he has asked the Independent Election Commission to replace some of its representatives in a number of governorates because of their lack of neutrality, the television reported. No further details were given of the apparent dispute. Al-Sharqiyah television reported that militants bombed the Samarra Education Department office on 27 January; the office is located next to a local school that may have been planned as a polling center. Three buildings set for use as polling centers in Kirkuk were also bombed, the television reported. Meanwhile, militants kidnapped three election workers in Mosul on 26, January, Al-Arabiyah reported. KR

AL-SADR AIDE SAYS CLERIC MAY BOYCOTT IRAQI ELECTIONS
An aide to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told Abu Dhabi television on 26 January that the cleric may boycott the 30 January elections if his supporters detained in Iraq are not released. Sheikh Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji said, "The recent recurring provocations by the occupation forces encourage and may compel us to do something, even if this would go against the efforts of some religious authorities [who support elections] and would be considered a violation of the truce and conditions set by the government and the delegation negotiating with the al-Sadr movement to end the military operations against the sons of Al-Sadr City." Al-Darraji contended that the United States plans to interfere in the election process. KR

UN OFFICIALS SAY IRAQ IS READY FOR ELECTIONS
UN electoral official Carina Perelli and UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast told reporters in New York on 26 January that Iraq is technically ready for elections on 30 January, the UN News Center reported (http://www.un.org/news). "From a technical point of view all is done, the arrangements are in place," Prendergast said. He warned, however, that the elections should be seen as part of a transition, as Iraq will face nationwide elections again in December. "We strongly hope that this election, which should be seen as part of a broader and longer political process of transition, will help stabilize Iraq in the interest of the Iraqi people," he noted. Perelli, meanwhile, criticized the role of U.S. troops in promoting voter participation. "The U.S. military have been extremely, I would say, overenthusiastic in trying to help out with this election. And we have been basically saying that they should try to minimize their participation, because this is an Iraqi process," washingtonpost.com quoted Perelli as saying. She praised the role of the Iraqi Independent Election Commission, telling reporters, "I am amazed at how far the commission of Iraq has come considering that eight months ago it did not exist," the UN News Center reported. KR

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