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Newsline - February 7, 2005


RICE SAYS BILATERAL RELATIONS DEPEND ON STATUS OF DEMOCRACY IN RUSSIA
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met on 6 February in Ankara with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss preparations for the 24 February summit in Bratislava between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well international issues and bilateral relations, Western and Russian mass media reported. A U.S. State Department spokesman said on condition of anonymity that Rice expressed to Lavrov her concern over what Washington views as anti-democratic steps recently taken by the Russian government, such as its moves against oil giant Yukos, a clampdown on electronic media, and the continuing concentration of power in the Kremlin, AP and other media reported. Speaking at a press conference in Warsaw on 5 February before leaving for Turkey, Rice said: "It is important that Russia make clear to the world that it is intent on strengthening the rule of law, strengthening the role of an independent judiciary, and permitting a free and independent press," Reuters reported. She added that Moscow's failure to do so makes it "more difficult to pursue a full and deep relationship." At the same time Rice said she is against punishing Russia by, for example, withholding U.S. support for Moscow's efforts to join the World Trade Organization, "The Washington Times" reported on 6 February. "I think it would be exactly the wrong thing to do to try and isolate Russia from the effects" of economic liberalization, which would, in fact, promote "democratic development," she said. VY

U.S., RUSSIA DISCUSS AGENDA OF UPCOMING SUMMIT
Talking to journalists after his meeting with Secretary of State Rice in Ankara, Foreign Minister Lavrov confirmed that the status of democracy in Russia had been discussed, adding that President Putin is ready to answer any questions on this topic during the Bratislava summit, RTR reported on 6 February. Lavrov said all differences in the U.S.-Russian relations should be "frankly discussed." Lavrov said he also discussed with Rice the agenda of the summit, which will include Iran's nuclear program, Russia's relations with Ukraine and Georgia, the Yukos affair, and U.S.-Russia cooperation in the energy sector. Lavrov added that a new topic is likely to be joint global rescue operations, following the 26 December tsunami in the Indian Ocean. "Only the United States and Russia have the long-distance air transport that can reach any corner of the world and that can be used for joint operations during emergencies," said Lavrov. Finally, Lavrov confirmed that President Bush will travel to Moscow in May for commemorations marking the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. VY

COMMUNISTS COLLECT ENOUGH SIGNATURES FOR NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE...
The deputy leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), Ivan Melnikov, announced on 4 February that his faction in the Duma has collected 101 signatures, more than the 90 necessary to include a no-confidence vote on the Duma's agenda, reported ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti. Meanwhile, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader and Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii said he is categorically against a no-confidence vote and that the motion has no chance of passing. He said it is just a public-relations stunt by the KPRF and the Motherland faction. First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska announced on 7 February that the no-confidence vote will take place on 12 February and that Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov will be present, Ekho Moskvy reported. "I believe it will be a very hot day for him," Sliska said. VY

...AS PRO-KREMLIN DEPUTIES DEMAND RESIGNATION OF SOCIAL MINISTER
Twenty-four deputies from Unified Russia sent a letter on 4 February to President Putin and Prime Minister Fradkov, demanding the ouster of Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov for "incompetence and corruption," gzt.ru reported. The deputies accused Zurabov, who before entering government had headed the medical insurance company MAX, of a conflict of interest for allowing pharmaceutical companies with which he allegedly had business links to be the main providers of medication, without requiring competitive tenders. VY

...AND LIBERALS DENY RESPONSIBILITY FOR CRISIS
Aleksei Mitrokhin, the deputy leader of Yabloko, has accused Zurabov of being "incompetent and unprofessional," TV-Tsentr reported on 5 February. "We should have in this position a person who understands social policy," Mitrokhin said, and not a businessman who is interested only in saving money. Boris Nemtsov, a member of the political council of the Union of Rightist Forces, said he disagrees with the widely held opinion that the liberals in government are responsible for the crisis resulting from the monetization of in-kind social benefits. He said Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin bear no personal responsibility for the failure of the reforms, although they supported the initiative. Zurabov, who is in charge of implementation, is to blame, but he can hardly be called a "liberal economist," said Nemtsov, TV-Tsentr reported. VY

PAPER WARNS THAT POLICE, FIREFIGHTERS COULD JOIN BENEFITS-REFORM PROTESTS
A second wave of protests against the government's social-benefits reform is looming, this time featuring police, firefighters, and military personnel, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 7 February. The daily reported that a conference of police trade unions in Moscow on 6 February was devoted almost entirely to a discussion of the benefits reform. On the same day, there was a demonstration against the reforms in Leningrad Oblast by civilian employees of Northern Fleet naval units. Only a few participants in the Moscow conference reported they had received monetary compensation for their lost in-kind benefits with their January salaries. Deputy Moscow police chief Viktor Chugunov told the conference that "we understand that in connection with the loss of benefits we might simply lose some valuable personnel." He reported that 350 police officers have already informed their superiors they intend to leave the force. He added that recruitment is down and that most applicants for the police force in Moscow are people who come from other cities. "Muscovites are not willing to work for kopecks," he said. According to the daily, conference participants held a closed session at which they discussed the possibility of participating in protests, although Russian law prohibits police officers from demonstrating. RC

DUMA CONDEMNS AUTHORS OF ANTI-SEMITIC LETTER
The Duma adopted on 4 February a resolution condemning a letter signed by 19 deputies from the KPRF and Motherland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 January 2005), in which they asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate the activity of "Jewish religious and ethnic organizations [that] provoke anti-Semitism in Russia and spread Jewish extremism," newsru.com and dni.ru reported. The Duma resolution said "the letter has a clear anti-Semitic context and arouses outrage and strong condemnation. The consequences of such a letter can be very dangerous in a multiconfessional country such as Russia." LDPR Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov initiated his own resolution, which says the letter compromises the Russian president, the Duma, and Russia's image abroad, reported polit.ru and strana.ru on 4 February. Meanwhile, the state-controlled national television networks RTR and ORT publicly apologized for erroneously reporting that LDPR deputies were among the signatories of the letter. VY

...AS LEFTIST DEPUTY SAYS LETTER IS KREMLIN PROVOCATION
Mikhail Delyagin, a Duma deputy (Motherland) and director of the Institute of Globalization, said the letter contains direct quotations from Nazi ideology and is a "conscious provocation" by the presidential administration, which fears that massive protests against monetization reforms will unite the left and right opposition, opec.ru reported on 4 February. Delyagin said one of the goals of this provocation is to undermine the support of the "civilized West for the millions of people fighting for their social rights." He said a second goal is to prevent cooperation between the Union of Rightist Forces, "which has a lot of Jews," and leftist forces, "among which there are a lot of anti-Semites and idiots who are so stupid they will sign anything." VY

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA'S PROGRESS TOWARD DEMOCRACY IS 'GOING IN CURVES'
In an interview with "Der Spiegel" on 5 February, Economic Development and Trade Minister Gref said Russia is "not taking the straight route" to a democratic, free-market society. "We are going in curves," he said, adding that the government's overall course remains in the direction of increased privatization. Gref said "the possibilities for the financial authorities to interpret the law as they please must be curtailed." Gref also repeated his past criticisms of the government's handling of the Yukos affair and the renationalization of Yuganskneftegaz. "I consider the increase in the public share of competitive areas to be wrong," Gref said. "The government is not an efficient owner." Gref added that high global energy prices "give the government the necessary means for relatively painless social reforms." On 4 February, Gref told reporters he is not certain the merger of Gazprom and Rosneft will be finalized this month. Earlier, media reported he had made such a statement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2005). "We are actively working on a scheme, but I cannot say as yet when the decision will be made," Gref said. RC

ROSNEFT HEAD SAYS RUSSIAN BANKS PAID FOR YUGANSKNEFTGAZ TAKEOVER
Rosneft President Sergei Bogdanchikov said on 5 February that Rosneft assembled financing for the purchase of Yuganskneftgaz "from a consortium of Russian banks," Interfax reported. According to the report, Bogdanchikov said several times during the press conference that "foreign banks were not involved in financing the purchase of Yuganskneftegaz." Media reported last week that a group of Chinese banks provided $6 billion to Vneshekonombank, which in turn lent the money to Rosneft for the Yuganskneftgaz purchase (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2005). Bogdanchikov refused to name the Russian banks purportedly involved in the purchase, saying "we have signed an agreement with the banks not to disclose" their participation. RC

STEPASHIN RECONFIRMED AS CHIEF AUDITOR, PROMISES LEGAL CASES OVER PRIVATIZATIONS
The State Duma on 4 February reconfirmed Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin in his post, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2005). Stepashin told deputies that "as far as privatization results are concerned, I believe all the unnecessary political dimension should be removed from them." "No one is going to divide anything or take anything away," Stepashin said. He added, however, that the chamber has made a number of recommendations to the government concerning future privatizations. He also said the government will initiate some legal actions in connection with the Audit Chamber's review of 1990s-era privatizations. "Today the government is preparing to take steps, which will be announced in due course," Stepashin told deputies, "The Moscow Times" reported on 7 February. "Documents have also been sent to the prosecutor's office," he said. RC

LAST DIRECT ELECTION OF REGIONAL GOVERNOR HELD
Former Nenets Autonomous Okrug federal inspector Aleksei Barinov was elected governor of the okrug on 6 February in the country's last direct election of a regional executive-branch head, Russian media reported. According to preliminary results, Barinov won 49.75 percent of the second-round vote, with local lawmaker Igor Koshin, who heads the okrug branch of Unified Russia, polling nearly 30 percent and "against all" rating 19.43 percent, Interfax reported on 7 February. In legislative elections in the okrug the same day, the Communist Party was leading with 27 percent, followed by Unified Russia with 23.55 percent, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia with 10.72 percent. In all, five parties or blocs surmounted the 7 percent barrier to gain party-list seats in the legislature. In Ulyanovsk Oblast, just 5 percent of eligible voters turned out on 6 February for regional legislative elections, ITAR-TASS reported. Analysts say the turnout was low because of poor weather and voter fatigue, as this was the fourth time oblast voters were called to vote in the last six months. The oblast recently adopted a law eliminating a minimum turnout to validate elections, which analysts say has also lowered voter participation. RC

RUSSIAN OFFICIALS SAY CHECHEN CEASE-FIRE HOLDING
The Chechen Interior Ministry and an unnamed Russian military official have separately confirmed that a unilateral cease-fire called for from 1 February by Chechen resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov has been honored, Reuters and AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2005). They said Maskhadov's fighters have not launched any attacks in recent days. In an interview published on 7 February in "Kommersant-Daily," Maskhadov again said the cease-fire declaration was intended as a gesture of goodwill, with the hope of beginning negotiations with the Russian leadership. He denied it was intended as a bargaining chip to secure the release of several of his family members who were abducted in December. LF

RADICAL CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDER'S FATE STILL UNCLEAR
Asked if he could confirm Russian media reports that radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev is dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2005), Maskhadov told "Kommersant-Daily" that Basaev's death has been reported at least five or six times, but those reports have proved premature. He also confirmed Basaev is no longer subordinate to his command, due to their disagreements over Basaev's involvement in terrorist acts directed at Russian civilians. Maskhadov said that once the war is over, he intends to hand Basaev over to an international war crimes tribunal. Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 5 February, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov similarly said he cannot confirm the rumors of Basaev's death, Interfax reported. Alkhanov again said that Maskhadov and Basaev are the only two resistance fighters who cannot be pardoned, blaming Maskhadov together with Basaev for the latter's acts of terrorism. LF

MILITANT KILLED IN DAGHESTAN
Police and federal troops killed a militant identified as Rasul Makasharipov in a large-scale operation in the mountains outside Makhachkala on 5-6 February, during which they discovered a hiding place used by Makasharipov's fighters, Russian media reported. One policeman was killed in a shoot-out with the militants, and one serviceman was wounded. On 5 February, an attempt to blow up the main gas pipeline in Daghestan failed when the bomb's timing mechanism malfunctioned, Interfax reported. LF

ARMENIAN COALITION PARTNERS DENY REJECTING OPPOSITION PROPOSAL
In a joint statement released on 4 February, the three parties represented in the Armenian coalition government denied they have "politely rejected" the compromise proposal on constitutional reform suggested by the opposition last month, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January and 3 and 4 February 2005). Parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian said the government is indeed prepared to include three key opposition demands in the package of constitutional amendments drafted by President Robert Kocharian that is to be put to a nationwide referendum later this year. LF

SENIOR OSCE OFFICIAL CALLS FOR DIALOGUE IN AZERBAIJAN
Speaking on 4 February at a press conference in Baku at the end of a two-day visit to Azerbaijan, Christian Strohal, who is director of the OSCE's Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), stressed the need for dialogue between authorities and the opposition in the run-up to parliamentary elections due this autumn, Azerbaijani media reported. Strohal said President Ilham Aliyev has assured him of his readiness for such dialogue and that, if asked, the OSCE office in Baku is ready to mediate. Strohal, who also met with Parliament Speaker Murtuz Alesqerov, Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, and representatives of both pro-government and opposition parties and NGOs, declined to answer questions relating to Azerbaijan's compliance with 26 recommendations made by the OSCE following the October 2003 presidential ballot, which international monitors said was neither fair nor democratic. Nor did he specify whether he believes Azerbaijan's election legislation should be amended, and, if so, how. An analysis prepared by the OSCE of procedural violations at the trials of more than 100 opposition activists arrested in the wake of the October 2003 election was distributed at Strohal's press conference. LF

THOUSANDS PAY TRIBUTE AS GEORGIAN PREMIER BURIED
Thousands of people paid tribute on 6 February to Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who died of apparent carbon-monoxide poisoning three days earlier, Georgian and Western media reported. Speaking at the funeral service in Tbilisi, President Mikheil Saakashvili called for national unity and praised Zhvania's role in promoting Georgian statehood and political stability. Numerous foreign delegations attended the funeral. The U.S. delegation was headed by Senator Richard Lugar; the Russian by Transport Minister Igor Levitin; Azerbaijan's by Prime Minister Artur Rasizade; and Armenia's by deputy parliamentary speaker Tigran Torosian. On 7 February, Saakashvili began discussions on the choice of a new prime minister. ITAR-TASS quoted an unnamed state chancery official as saying the post, reintroduced in February 2004, will not be abolished. LF

GAS VICTIM'S FATHER QUERIES CIRCUMSTANCES OF POISONING
Yashir Yusupov, whose son Raul was found dead with Zhvania on 3 February in a Tbilisi apartment, told the independent Georgian television company Mze that he does not believe the deaths were accidental, or that his son died in the apartment where the bodies were found, kavkazweb.net reported on 5 February. Yusupov denied official statements that his son had rented the apartment. While Georgian officials claim the gas poisoning was due to lack of ventilation and a malfunctioning Iranian gas heater installed just days earlier, the owner of the apartment, who has not been identified, has said the heater was installed three months earlier and functioned normally. Meanwhile, investigators are still trying to trace the last call Zhvania made on his mobile phone at 1:19 a.m. on 3 February, Caucasus Press reported on 5 February. On 4 February, National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili said there are no grounds to believe the lives of any other senior Georgian officials are in danger, Caucasus Press reported. LF

HELSINKI COMMITTEE SAYS WEST IGNORES CENTRAL ASIAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, told a news conference in Kazakhstan on 5 February that the West is turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Central Asia, Reuters reported. Stressing that the overall rights situation in the region is deteriorating, Rhodes said, "Anything [local governments] consider as politically threatening they label 'terrorist,' and unfortunately a number of Western governments do accept this logic." Rhodes singled out Uzbekistan for harsh criticism, saying, "The number of people who are imprisoned for their beliefs [in Uzbekistan] is extremely high; the number of torture cases and murders by officials is extremely high." He also called attention to authoritarian steps that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have taken in the wake of Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution. Rhodes charged that the West has placed its strategic interests, which include access to the region's energy resources and Central Asia's cooperation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, above human rights concerns. DK

EURASIAN COMMUNITY MEETS IN KAZAKHSTAN
The Integration Committee of the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) -- comprised of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia -- met in Almaty on 4 February, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The meeting, which took place at the level of deputy prime ministers, reviewed and approved for subsequent consideration by heads of state draft agreements on a common energy balance for EEC member states, cooperation among border agencies, technical regulation, and currency regulation. Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko commented, "As we liberalize our economies, issues of customs and trade barriers become less sensitive, and measures of nontariff regulation become more important." DK

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION RALLIES FOR FAIR ELECTIONS
The Kyrgyz NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society held a demonstration in Bishkek on 5 February ahead of parliamentary elections on 27 February, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The demonstration, which drew around 300 people and an almost equal number of law-enforcement personnel, was supported by a number of opposition parties. Coalition head Edil Baisalov addressed the crowd, saying, "Today, we gathered once again to show that citizens of Kyrgyzstan are demanding free and fair [parliamentary] elections." Baisalov said local authorities, who did not grant permission for the gathering, prevented some would-be demonstrators from attending, akipress.org reported. The coalition plans to ask prosecutors to open a criminal case against local authorities for attempting to prevent a lawful demonstration. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT PRESENTS 'CLEAN KYRGYZSTAN' PROGRAM...
President Askar Akaev presented a program called Clean Kyrgyzstan at a conference with 844 delegates from Kyrgyzstan's peoples on 5 February in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Radio reported. The program has five components: clean technology, clean water, clean hands, clean elections, and a clean environment, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The gathering, which did not include any representatives of the country's political opposition, passed a resolution giving a positive assessment of the government's work in 2004. DK

...AND SEES NO REVOLUTION IN THE OFFING
Addressing the gathering, President Akaev expressed confidence that no radical changes are looming in the run-up to the 27 February parliamentary elections, Kabar news agency reported. He said, "Kyrgyzstan will not see any revolutions or upheaval. No conditions for this exist." The president concluded, "I believe that the Kyrgyz people, with their ancient democratic culture, will demonstrate their immunity to the attempts by extremist forces advancing mercenary goals to infect the country with dangerous revolutionary viruses." DK

TAJIKISTAN FILES EXTRADITION REQUEST FOR OPPOSITION LEADER
An official at the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office told Avesta on 4 February that Tajikistan has sent the necessary documents to Moscow to extradite Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, head of Tajikistan's opposition Democratic Party. The news agency noted, however, that unofficial sources suggest that Russian authorities may soon release Iskandarov due to insufficient evidence. Iskandarov was arrested in Moscow on 9 December on terrorism and corruption charges at the request of Tajik authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2004). DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT REMOVES JUSTICE MINISTER
President Saparmurat Niyazov has signed a decree dismissing Justice Minister Taganmyrat Gochyev, turkmenistan.ru reported on 5 February. The report said Gochyev was removed in connection with his transfer to another post, but provided no further details. Gochyev had headed the Justice Ministry since 1 September 2003. DK

UZBEK PRESIDENT SHAKES UP CABINET
President Islam Karimov signed a decree on 4 February approving a new cabinet, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Elyor Ghaniev, who had headed the Agency for Foreign Economic Ties, was named foreign minister; Ghaniev also retained the post of deputy prime minister. Former Foreign Minister Sodiq Safoev will head the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. Buritosh Mustafoev, head of the Central Election Commission for the 26 December parliamentary elections, was named minister of justice. Unofficial sources suggested former Justice Minister Abdusamat Polvonzoda may be tapped to head the Supreme Court. DK

WOMEN TRADERS PROTEST IN ANDIJON
A group of 100 Uzbek women blocked traffic in Andijon on 4 February to protest new commercial regulations that they say are depriving them of their livelihood, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The women complained that new regulations require them to buy a trading place at the market for up to $5,000, an unrealistic sum for traders whose inventory is only worth $50 to $60. The women say they depend on small-scale trade because there is no other work in the region. The women dispersed after speaking with officials. Andijon Deputy Governor Tohir Tuychiev said the regulations are justified because the women are engaged in illegal trade. DK

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION PROPOSES MORE PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS
The opposition United Civic Party decided on 6 February to put forward its leader, Anatol Lyabedzka, as a candidate for the 2006 presidential election, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Also on the same day, the opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly proposed its leader, Stanislau Shushkevich, as a candidate for the 2006 presidential ballot. Belarusian opposition parties are planning to hold a congress of democratic parties in May, presumably abroad, to select a single candidate from the democratic camp to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Other politicians who have announced their intention to run in the 2006 presidential election include Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists; Zyanon Paznyak, exiled leader of the opposition Conservative Christian Party; Mikalay Statkevich from the European Coalition Free Belarus; and Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party, which cooperates with the authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February 2005). JM

BELARUSIAN ACADEMICIANS SHOW 'INSUBORDINATION' OVER UNDEMOCRATIC VOTING PROCEDURE
A general convention of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences (BNAN) on 3 February failed to approve amendments to the BNAN statute because of the lack of a quorum, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported on 4 February. The BNAN Presidium suggested abolishing the secret ballot process and allowing all members of the BNAN General Assembly, not only full academicians and corresponding members as is the case now, to vote on candidates for academic titles. The changes were proposed by Ryhor Vasilevich, chairman of the Constitutional Court, who failed to win enough votes to get the title of BNAN corresponding member last year. "I think the lack of a quorum [on 3 February] was a good example for others," Academician Ivan Nikitchanka commented for RFE/RL. "It was an action of overt insubordination." JM

BELARUS REDUCED GAS DEBT BY $25 MILLION IN 2004
Belarus's debt for imported natural gas dropped by $25.3 million last year to $166.8 million as of 1 January 2005, Belapan reported on 5 February, quoting official sources. Belarus's debt to Gazprom, Russia's gas monopoly, fell to $157.9 million in the same period. In 2004, Belarus imported 19.6 billion cubic meters of gas and some 4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. JM

NEW UKRAINIAN CABINET TAKES OVER...
Following the approval of Yuliya Tymoshenko as prime minister and the appointment of a new cabinet by President Viktor Yushchenko on 4 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2005), 357 deputies endorsed the cabinet's program presented earlier by Tymoshenko in the parliament, Ukrainian media reported. The vote gave Tymoshenko's cabinet immunity from no-confidence motions for a year. The new cabinet consists of Anatoliy Kinakh as first deputy prime minister; Oleh Rybachuk, Mykola Tomenko, and Roman Bezsmertnyy as deputy prime ministers; Yuriy Lutsenko as interior minister; Serhiy Teryokhin as economy minister; Borys Tarasyuk as foreign minister; Anatoliy Hrytsenko as defense minister; Oleksandr Baranivskyy as agriculture minister; Oksana Bilozir as culture minister; Mykola Polishchuk as health minister; Stanislav Nikolayenko as education minister; Yuriy Pavlenko as minister for family, children, and youth issues; Ivan Plachkov as minister for fuel and energy; Vyachesklav Kyrylenko as labor minister; Volodymyr Shandra as industrial policy minister; Yevhen Chervonenko as transport minister; David Zhvaniya as emergency situations minister; Viktor Pynzenyk as financial minister; Roman Zvarych as justice minister; and Pavlo Ihnatenko as environment minister. Yushchenko appointed Oleksandr Turchynov from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc as head of the Security Service of Ukraine. JM

...PLEDGES TO REVERT INFAMOUS PRIVATIZATION OF METALLURGICAL GIANT...
During its first working meeting on 5 February, Ukraine's new cabinet decided to annul last year's highly controversial privatization of the Kryvorizhstal steel mill, Ukrainian media reported. Kryvorizhstal, the country's largest metallurgical plant, was sold for $800 million to political allies of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Viktor Pinchuk and Rynat Akhmetov, despite much higher bids from foreign investors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 June 2004). "[The decision] means that we have started the process of returning Kryvorizhstal to the state," Interfax quoted Tymoshenko as saying. She added that the details of the government's decision on Kryvorizhstal will be given in a separate press release. Simultaneously, Tymoshenko stressed that there will be no mass reprivatizations in the country. JM

...AS PRESIDENT BEGINS TO INSTALL NEW REGIONAL GOVERNORS
President Yushchenko on 7 February left Kyiv for Sumy, his native region, to present newly appointed governor of Sumy Oblast to the regional administration staff, Interfax reported. State Secretary Oleksandr Zinchenko and Foreign Minister Tarasyuk accompanied Yushchenko on the trip. On 4 February, following the appointment of new ministers to Tymoshenko's cabinet, Yushchenko signed decrees replacing with loyalists 24 governors of Ukrainian regions and the head of the Sevastopol city administration. Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko, Yushchenko's ally during the Orange Revolution, retained his post. JM

U.S. SENATORS PROPOSE UKRAINIAN, GEORGIAN PRESIDENTS FOR NOBEL PEACE PRIZE
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) have sent a joint letter to the Nobel Institute nominating Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for the Nobel Peace Prize, Voice of America (VOA) reported on 4 February. "We think that both presidents represent the very finest courage, dedication, and leadership, which brings about freedom and democracy. We think that these two individuals represent exactly what Mr. Nobel had in mind when he started this prize many years ago," McCain told VOA's Ukrainian Service. Up to 25 people were killed in sporadic fighting after President Saakashvili approved the deployment of troops to the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia last summer. JM

SERBIAN PRESIDENT SAYS EUROPEAN INTEGRATION IS A TWO-WAY STREET...
Serbian President Boris Tadic told Germany's leading Balkan studies professional organization, the Southeast Europe Society, in Freiburg on 5 February that Serbia has clearly opted for "Euro-Atlantic integration," RFE/RL reported. He stressed that "European Serbia" won the 2004 presidential and local elections, adding that radical nationalist elements will not succeed in winning any upcoming ballot, either (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 October, 12 November, and 10 December 2004, and 28 January 2005). Tadic called for a clear break with Serbia's recent past, appealing to Serbs in neighboring countries to contribute to the prosperity and stability of the region. He argued that Serbia's road to Europe is not a one-way street, and that one must also speak of a "European road to Serbia." The president called on Serbian war crimes indictees to appear before the Hague-based tribunal, stressing that "Serbia cannot become a hostage" because such people refuse to turn themselves in voluntarily. He noted that there cannot be any collective war crimes guilt for an entire nation and that individuals must answer for their deeds. PM

...AND WARNS AGAINST INDEPENDENCE FOR KOSOVA...
Serbian President Tadic said in Freiburg, Germany, on 5 February that the international community must become more involved in resolving the Kosova question, RFE/RL reported. He added that independence for the province will only serve to strengthen radical and nationalist elements in Serbia, appealing instead for an unspecified solution that will meet the interests of Serbs and Albanians alike. Tadic called on KFOR peacekeepers and the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) to become as successful in returning Serbian refugees to their homes as KFOR and UNMIK were in helping Albanian returnees in 1999. The president argued that Serbia "is hurrying" to speed up the process of its European integration and to solve the Kosova problem "for the benefit of all citizens" of the province. Calling for better Western treatment of Serbia, Tadic said that "the idea that the Serbs are on the bad side of the Balkans and the other [nations] are on the good side is wrong.... We are all victims and perpetrators" at the same time. He stressed that Serbia and Belgrade could some day return to their role as economic leaders of the Balkans, adding that Serbia could become Germany's "strategic partner" in the region. PM

...AS OTHER SERBIAN LEADERS WEIGH IN
Nikola Jovanovic, who heads the Serbian government's office for EU integration, said in Novi Sad on 6 February that the main reason for Serbia's slow pace in moving towards the Brussels-based bloc is the absence of a national consensus about the necessity of becoming involved in the integration process, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In Washington, Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic told VOA that he opposes independence for Kosova because the "UN Charter does not allow for the establishment of an independent state on the territory of another sovereign state when the latter opposes it." He added, however, that "the status of Kosovo cannot remain what it was before June 1999" when Serbian forces left the province and NATO arrived. PM

CROATIAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS THAT 'NOBODY IS ABOVE THE LAW'
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said in Karlovac on 5 February that everyone should understand that "nobody, not even [fugitive war crimes indictee and former] General Ante Gotovina, can be above the law...regardless of his past services to Croatia," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January and 1, 2, and 3 February 2005). The previous day, Croatia's National Security Council called on "all relevant state authorities...to redouble their efforts to locate, arrest, and hand over" Gotovina. The Croatian authorities maintain that he is not in their country, which many officials of the EU and the Hague-based war crimes tribunal dispute. Croatia's failure to arrest him is the country's biggest stumbling block in its efforts to join the EU, which is the government's top foreign policy goal. PM

MACEDONIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES DEPLOYMENT OF NEW MILITARY CONTINGENT TO AFGHANISTAN
The Macedonian parliament unanimously agreed on 4 February to deploy a new army contingent to Afghanistan, MIA news agency reported. The 19 soldiers will be put under German command within the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF), replacing the current contingent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 July 2004, and 5 and 25 January 2005). In other news, the Macedonian government decided to scrap the last 30 of the 91 T-55 tanks that Bulgaria donated to Macedonia in 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2003 and 13 January 2004). The decommissioning of the tanks is part of Macedonia's efforts to bring its army closer to NATO standards. UB

ROMANIAN PREMIER ELECTED PNL CHAIRMAN
Calin Popescu-Tariceanu was elected on 4 February chairman of the National Liberal Party (PNL), Mediafax and AP reported. Popescu-Tariceanu ran unopposed and garnered 1,110 out of the 1,296 votes cast by party delegates at their 4-6 February congress. On 5 February, former PNL Chairman Valeriu Stoica called on the party to start immediately merger negotiations with the Democratic Party. His proposal was backed only by 84 party delegates, while 66 delegates abstained and the rest voted against it. The party approved instead a counter proposal by Popescu-Tariceanu, which said that while the merger is a "natural next target" in the relation with the Democrats, a hastily prepared unification of the two Justice and Truth partners would be a mistake. Popescu-Tariceanu said it is far more important for the two parties to concentrate their efforts on governing the country. MS

ROMANIAN FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE SERVICE DENIES SPYING ON DUTCH MEP
The Foreign Intelligence Service (SIE) on 4 February denied allegations of spying on former European Parliament Dutch Christian Democratic member Arie Oostlander, Mediafax and dpa reported. The denial came one day after the daily "Ziua" published an interview with Oostlander, who said he had been aware of attempts by both SIE and the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) to shadow him and to influence members of his staff in order to change Oostlander's critical views of Romania's preparations for EU accession. In January 2004, Oostlander unsuccessfully tried to bring about the suspension of Romania's negotiations with the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 26 January, 2, 3, and 9 February 2004). "Ziua" also published the minutes of a 2004 meeting of the leadership of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), where the intelligence agencies' efforts in that direction were mentioned. MS

ROMANIA, BULGARIA PLEDGE COOPERATION ON EU ACCESSION
Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu and his Bulgarian counterpart Solomon Pasi on 4 February pledged to work together in preparing for accession to the European Union in 2007, dpa, Mediafax, and BTA reported. Ungureanu and Pasi met in talks first in the Bulgarian town of Russe and then in the Romanian town of Giurgiu, which is on the other side of River Danube. They also discussed bilateral cooperation with NATO, as well as infrastructure projects to speed up traffic at the Russe-Giurgiu crossing point. They signed an agreement on the establishment of a Bulgarian-Romanian European Inter-University Center based on cooperation between Russe University and the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies. MS

ROMANIAN PEASANT PARTY TO CHANGE NAME
The leadership of the extraparliamentary National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD) on 5 February approved changing the party's name to the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD), the daily "Evenimentul zilei" reported the next day. The move was said to reflect efforts to unify all Christian-Democratic and Popular political forces into a single formation, but may also be an effort to block the accession of a merged PNL-Democratic Party to the European People's Party (EPP), as proposed by some Liberal politicians. The PNTCD was last represented in parliament between 1996-2000 as the leading force in the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR). MS

MOLDOVAN ELECTION COMMISSION ENDS REGISTRATION FOR MARCH PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS...
Moldova's election commission head Petru Railean announced on 4 February that seven political parties, two voting blocs, and four independent candidates were registered with the bureau to run in the 6 March parliamentary elections, Flux and Infotag reported. These competitors were approved by the bureau before the registration deadline on 3 February, but the bureau has yet to examine registration requests by two political parties and two more independents that submitted their registration requests late. In order to gain parliamentary representation, independent candidates must garner at least 3 percent of the ballot, political parties must garner at least 6 percent, voting blocs of two parties 9 percent, and blocs of three parties or more 12 percent of the vote. MS

...ASKS TRANSDNIESTER TO ORGANIZE VOTING IN ITS TERRITORY
Commission head Railean said on 4 February that the bureau has sent a letter to the authorities in Tiraspol asking them to organize on 6 March Moldovan elections in Transdniester, Infotag and Flux reported. Railean demanded that the separatist authorities notify the CEC within three days whether they accept. Organizing the elections would require that the Transdniestrian authorities meet several conditions stipulated in Moldova's constitution and electoral legislation. Among these conditions is candidates' freedom of movement, freedom to post campaign posters and meet unobstructed with the electorate, and airtime on radio and television financed from the local budget. MS

U.S. AMBASSADOR TO OSCE URGES RESUMPTION OF TRANSDNIESTER NEGOTIATIONS
U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Stephen Minikes said in Chisinau on 4 February that Moldova and Transdniester must resume negotiations in order to be able to reach an agreement, AP reported. MS

THE PENSION FACTOR IN MOLDOVA'S PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
It has become evident with the official start of the campaign for the 6 March parliamentary elections that the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) has staked its reelection chances on solid social spending. During the Communists' past four years in power, no policy has been more successful -- especially in terms of generating political capital -- and consistent than that regarding public pensions. With pensions paid on time, in cash, and regularly indexed against inflation, the Communists dutifully thanked the elderly for massively voting them into power in 2001. Since pensioners constitute the most disciplined segment of the Moldovan electorate, in that they vote in higher numbers than do other age groups for leftist parties committed to generous social benefits, this has undoubtedly been a strategic decision.

As a leftist party, the PCM promised increased social spending to cushion those who suffered most in the transition from communism during the past decade. It was no accident that old-age pensions captured their attention. This is the largest public-spending program run by the National House for Social Insurance (NHSI). It distributes retirement benefits to about 700,000 retirees with an annual spending equal to half of the total budget. The Communists rightly sensed the viability of Soviet-style paternalism in Moldovan society, especially among elderly citizens. These people continue to look to government leaders to provide for their retirement income. Indeed, knowledge of how a pension system operates is rather meager in the country. Few realize that their benefits are paid out of contributions made by current workers. Instead, pensions are largely regarded as the effort of the governing party headed by President Vladimir Voronin. It is safe to argue that paying pensions has served as a societal indicator of the government's ability to govern.

By any yardstick, pension policy under the PCM was starkly different from that of previous governments. In particular, pension arrears were done away with, in-kind benefits were eliminated, and pensions were annually raised to reflect price and wage increases. The average pension grew from $21 in 2002 to $28 in 2004. When measured in terms of purchasing power, however, the average 2004 pension is only half the subsistence minimum. But at the popular level, what matters is the authorities' unfailing effort to cater to the needs of the elderly under conditions of austere budgets. This modest pension constitutes just one of the pensioners' potential sources of income, along with subsistence farming and intra-family transfers, hence its strong popularity.

The governing party halted the rise in retirement age legislated by the Alliance for Democracy and Reforms (ADR) under the 1998 pension reform. It provided for a gradual increase in retirement age for both men (from 60 to 65) and women (from 55 to 60) by six months per year starting in 1999. This provision was changed in December 2002 to institute a five-year moratorium on pension-age rise (2003-08), citing low life expectancy and, respectively, need for more extensive surveys of the issue. Currently, men can retire at 62 and women at 57. This policy reversal, though an expensive budgetary measure, will certainly bring the Communists the votes of those close to their retirement, despite its temporary nature.

On the contrary, there is nothing unusual in the government's attempt to boost social spending in an election with the aim of obtaining support at the ballot box among benefit recipients. Such endeavors were undertaken in the past by the ADR and agrarian governments; they are common practice in many democracies. A case in point is the unplanned 25 percent raise in pensions decreed on 1 November 2004. Whether pensioners factor this "gift" into their voting decisions will be known shortly after the 6 March elections.

In this regard, the record in the region is mixed. Lavish social spending helped Boris Yeltsin defeat Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov in the 1996 presidential election in Russia, despite initial perceptions of his slim chances for reelection. Conversely, generous benefits granted to pensioners by the incumbent Social Democratic (PSD) government could not secure Adrian Nastase the presidency in the 12 December 2004 second-round elections in Romania.

The evident progress achieved by the current government in social policy should not overshadow the short-term challenges confronting the Moldovan pension system, however. In addition to an aging population, widespread unemployment, and black market activities, which affect pension provision in Eastern and Western European countries alike, albeit with different intensity, Moldova has to grapple with the problem of rising economic migration. Moldovans working abroad make no social contributions to the national fund, likewise undermining the fiscal health of the system.

It is also important to democratize the administration of pension provision by NHSI. There is a stringent need for a more collegial management board of NHSI to include representatives of labor, business, and even those of pensioners' associations. While the prerogative of setting benefit and indexation levels will continue to rest upon the parliament, the administration should focus on supervising NHSI's staff and expenses. This change will significantly contribute to enhancing the government's legitimacy as a pension provider.

Finally, an increase in the retirement age as a tool for containing pension expenditure remains inevitable in the next couple of years, despite the government's temporary halt. The issue could resurface in the form of loan conditionality as borrowing from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund resumes. It will depend on the government's strategic capacity for framing the issue in such a way as to gain political capital for a seemingly unpopular policy change. It can make retirement more flexible by encouraging people to work longer in exchange for higher pensions. Politically, this should not be a problematic reform since the most dynamic segment of the elderly continues working beyond the official retirement age anyway.

It is unlikely that the most critical aspects of pension policy will dominate the election discourse. However, they are certainly likely to climb to the top of the reform agenda after the election day. As for the PCM's record in the area of pensions, it all now depends on the elderly: will they reward the Communists for receiving preferential treatment compared to other social groups during the past four years?

Ilian Cashu is a Ph.D. student in political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University specializing in postcommunist social policy. This article was supported by a grant from the International Fellowships Program at the Open Society Institute.

WRECKAGE OF AIRLINER FOUND NEAR KABUL...
Search crews found the wreckage of the passenger airliner operated by privately owned Kam Air that went missing on 3 February during a flight from the western Herat Province to Kabul, RFE/RL reported on 5 February. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfollah Mashal told RFE/RL that "some parts of the plane were found" near Kabul, but unfortunately, "the plane was completely destroyed. All the passengers -- mostly Afghans but including some foreigners -- were killed." The Boeing 737 was approaching Kabul airport when it was turned away because of heavy snow, but it disappeared from radar screens, sparking a nearly two-day search involving hundreds of Afghan and international troops. "The area is covered by snow, the bodies have not yet been recovered, they are all under the snow. The police that reached the wreckage are still working there and our quick-response forces with Kabul police are in the area. They will work to collect the bodies. The number will be announced later," Mashal said. If all 104 on board are confirmed dead, the incident will be Afghanistan's worst-ever aviation disaster. It is believed that 23 foreigners were on board the plane -- nine Turks, six U.S. nationals, four Russians, three Italians, and one Iranian, Radio Afghanistan reported on 6 February. AT

...AS NEO-TALIBAN DENIES ANY LINK TO THE DISASTER
An unidentified spokesman for the neo-Taliban said that the militia did not shoot down the Kam Air passenger plane that crashed near Kabul on 3 February, Radio Afghanistan reported on 6 February. No official explanation has been provided as to what caused the crash, the report added. AT

NATO PROMISES TO UPGRADE KABUL AIRPORT'S RADAR SYSTEM
Hikmet Cetin, the chief civilian representative of NATO in Afghanistan, on 6 February promised to equip Kabul International Airport with a radar system that meets international standards by May, Afghanistan Television reported. Cetin made the promise during a meeting with Afghanistan's First Vice President Ahmad Zai Masud. AT

VETERAN AFGHAN POLITICIAN WILL RESIGN AS PARTY LEADER
Islamic Movement of Afghanistan leader Ayatollah Sheikh Asef Mohseni has indicated that he will resign as his party's leader, Radio Afghanistan reported on 6 February. According to a statement issued by the party, Sayyed Mohammad Ali Jawed will be the party's new leader. The Islamic Movement of Afghanistan was one of the resistance groups opposing the Soviets and their client regimes in Afghanistan from 1978 to 1992. The party was "involved in internal fighting in some parts of the country," the report added. AT

IRANIAN POLICE COMPLAIN OF INADEQUATE COUNTERNARCOTICS BUDGET
Brigadier General Mehdi Aboui, who heads the national police counternarcotics unit, said on 5 February in Mashhad that the amount of money allocated for drug control is insufficient, IRNA reported. Aboui did not disclose the actual amount of money, but he said that it is good for just three months. Six percent of the budget is earmarked for demand reduction, 30 percent is for treatment, and 10 percent is for miscellaneous counternarcotics activities. Aboui went on to predict that drug production in Afghanistan, the world's leading producer of opiates, will exceed 5,000 tons this year. He added that Iran's seizure of 260 tons of narcotics since March 2004 is a 50 percent increase compared to the same period one year ago. Aboui attributed the increase in narcotics trafficking to "mafia gangs...some of whom are even being backed by state governments across the world." BS

IRANIAN DISSIDENT CLERIC FREED FROM PRISON
Hojatoleslam Hassan Yussefi-Eshkevari was released from jail on 6 February, relatives told IRNA. The cleric was arrested in August 2000; his seven-year sentence included four years for saying that dress codes for women are unnecessary in Islam, one year for his participation in the spring 2000 conference in Berlin about reform in Iran, and two years for disseminating false news. An appeals court reversed the death sentence. BS

IRAN URGED TO APPROVE CONVENTION ON DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN
The United Nations High Commission on Human Rights' rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Erturk, urged the Iranian government on 6 February to approve the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), IRNA reported. The UN official arrived in Iran on 30 January for a one-week visit, during which she was scheduled to meet with women's groups, nongovernmental organizations, scholars, the media, and state representatives. Women in the 6th parliament (2000-2004) introduced 33 bills that addressed gender issues, Ziba Mir-Hosseini writes in the winter 2004 issue of "Middle East Report." The Guardians Council rejected all of them, but 16 became law after being watered down by the Expediency Council. The proposal that Iran join CEDAW, as well as 16 other bills, is now up to the conservative-dominated seventh parliament, Mir-Hosseini writes. BS

IRAN'S NUCLEAR SECTOR CAN RECOVER QUICKLY FROM ATTACK
Vice-President for Atomic Energy Qolam Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi, who heads the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, said in a 6 February interview with state television that Iran can recover from an attack on the Bushehr nuclear facility fairly quickly. There would be economic damage, he acknowledged, but Iran's know-how, designs, and capability would not be damaged. Even the physical damage can be repaired, he said, because of the lessons learned in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Turning to Iran's mastery of the nuclear-fuel cycle and ability to produce UF6, Aqazadeh-Khoi said there are only seven or eight factories in the world that can make UF2, UF6, uranium oxide, and uranium metal. BS

IRAN ACCUSES U.S. OF INTERFERENCE IN IRAQI AFFAIRS...
Iranian Ambassador to Kuwait Jafar Musavi on 6 February denied that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs and charged that the United States is at fault, IRNA reported. "[It is] the United States that is meddling in Iraq's domestic affairs with its occupation. Iran does not even have one military personnel [sic] in Iraq," he said. Musavi did not say how many Iranian intelligence officers are active in Iraq. "Iran's spiritual influence does not mean it is meddling with the country's affairs. We are committed to the principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of any country," Musavi said. BS

...AS IT REFURBISHES HOLY SITES
Iranian construction efforts in the holy cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala are continuing, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 20 January. Karaj Friday Prayer leader and supreme leader representative Hajj Hussein Shadiman, who heads the office for repairing the holy sites in Iraq, described laying a water pipe on the Karbala road to the holy shrine, which makes this the first time it will have piped water. Now there are fire hydrants and fire-fighting equipment around the shrine, Shadiman added. Other construction projects include a ceremonial hall, as well as a health center. A great deal of work was done on cleaning up the Imam Ali shrine in Karbala. Shadiman said individuals wanting to aid the construction process can make donations, or if they prefer, the office will design projects for individuals or groups that want to contribute independently. BS

AT LEAST 30 KILLED IN LATEST IRAQ ATTACKS
Insurgents killed at least 29 people and wounded 17 more on 7 February in the deadliest attacks since Iraq's 30 January elections, international news agencies reported. A suicide bomber killed 12 policemen at the Jumhouri Teaching Hospital complex in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Four others were injured in the blast, in which the bomber set off explosives outside the building among a group of Iraqi policemen, AP reported citing hospital Director Tahseen Ali Mahmud al-Obeidi. Militants loyal to Islamic extremist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the blast in a message posted on the Internet, AFP reported. In a separate incident in Mosul on 7 February, militants fired more than a dozen mortar rounds at a police station in the city, killing three civilians, AP reported on the same day. Also on 7 February, a suicide car bomber attacked a police station in Ba'qubah, northeast of Baghdad, killing 14 Iraqis and wounding at least 13, Reuters reported the same day. BW

FOUR EGYPTIANS AND ONE ITALIAN TAKEN HOSTAGE IN IRAQ
Gunmen in Baghdad kidnapped four Egyptians working for a cell phone company on 6 February, and a group of Islamic militants have apparently threatened to kill a captive Italian journalist, international news agencies reported. The four Egyptians were taken captive near western Baghdad's Mansour district, AP reported citing anonymous officials. The four worked for Iraqna, a subsidiary of the Egyptian firm Orascom Telecommunications, which operates the mobile phone network in Baghdad and central Iraq. The Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, who works for the "Il Manifesto" daily, was taken hostage on 4 February when militants blocked her car outside Baghdad University. On 4 February, a group calling itself the Islamic Jihad Organization posted a message on the Internet claiming to have captured the journalist and gave Italy 72 hours to withdraw its troops from Iraq. A day later, the group posted another message saying Sgrena will be subject to the "rule of God." BW

SUNNI CLERICS DEMAND TROOP WITHDRAWAL TIMETABLE IN EXCHANGE FOR COOPERATION ON CONSTITUTION...
The Sunni Muslim Scholars Association has demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for its participation in drafting a new constitution, international news agencies reported on 5 February. The group made its demand after holding talks with UN special envoy Ashraf Qazi. "We told him [Qazi] that we had conditions and that we would discuss them with the parties that boycotted the polls and would put forward a common stance," AFP quoted the group's spokesman Omar Ragheb as saying on 5 February. "These demands focus on reaching a consensus with all political parties on the withdrawal of foreign forces," Ragheb added. The Muslim Scholars Association had persuaded Iraq's main Sunni religious faction, the Islamic Party, to boycott Iraq's recent elections. The group is now suggesting it could persuade Sunni militants to abandon their violent insurgency if its demands are met. BW

...AS SHI'ITE LEADERS DEMAND ISLAM BE THE SOURCE OF LAW IN NEW CONSTITUTION
Leading Iraqi Shi'ite clerics said Islam should be the sole source of legitimacy in the country's new constitution, AFP reported on 6 February. "All of the ulema [clergy] and marja [models for emulation], and the majority of the Iraqi people, want the National Assembly to make Islam the source of legislation in the permanent constitution and to reject any law that is contrary to Islam," read a statement released by Sheikh Ibrahim Ibrahimi, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ishaq al-Fayad. "We warn officials against a separation of the state and religion, because this is completely rejected by the ulema and marja and we will accept no compromise on this question. If they want the stability and security of the country, they must not touch the country's Islamic values and traditions." A source close to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told AFP the revered spiritual leader also backs the demand. With 3.3 million votes counted out of an estimated 8 million cast in the elections, the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance, backed by al-Sistani, holds a commanding lead, international news agencies reported on 7 February. BW

MONITORS SAY IRAQI ELECTION FREE AND FAIR DESPITE SOME INCIDENTS OF INTIMIDATION
Iraqi election monitors said on 6 February that the country's recent elections were free and fair, although they found evidence of intimidation at hundreds of polling stations and thousands of people in towns near Mosul were unable to vote, international news agencies reported the same day. "Despite problems which can be considered modest under the circumstances, the elections appear to have been conducted without systemic flaws and in accordance with basic international standards," Reuters quoted a statement released by the Election Information Network (EIN) as saying. The EIN, an independent organization set up with support from the United Nations and the European Union, had more than 8,000 monitors in the field on election day, covering 80 percent of Iraq's polling stations. The group said it found various cases of intimidation at 15 percent of the polling stations it covered, although it uncovered no evidence that it was systematic. EIN said that 12,000 residents in Shekhan, a town 110 kilometers east of Mosul, had been unable to vote. Also, approximately 5,500 people in Sinjar, located 110 kilometers west of Mosul, experienced similar problems (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2005). BW

HUNDREDS FREED FROM IRAQ'S ABU GHURAYB
U.S. authorities have released more than 300 inmates from the Abu Ghurayb prison on the outskirts of Baghdad on 6 February, bringing the total number of prisoners set free this year to 800, Reuters reported the same day citing Iraq's Human Rights Ministry. "The release of 350 detainees this week further demonstrates our determination that every detainee receives full consideration of their cases and only those deemed true security threats to our nation are held in the internment camps," the ministry said in a statement. Some 1,000 of the 8,000 people currently being held in prisons and detention facilities throughout Iraq have charges pending against them in the country's central criminal court. The remainder will have their status reviewed every 90-120 days, Reuters reported. The Human Rights Ministry, which is involved in reviewing the detainees' cases, said it expects more inmates to be freed in the coming weeks. BW

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