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Newsline - February 10, 2005


FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA WANTS NO NEW COLD WAR
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote in the daily "Izvestiya" on 10 February that Russia does not want any new confrontation with the West as such a situation "could only complicate the resolution of domestic economic and social problems and hinder Russia's integration into the world economy and politics." Moscow has increased its presence on the global political stage not because "it wants to reassert itself as a world power or expand its sphere of influence," but because "in the modern world, Russia's national interests, particularly security, can be defended only through active cooperation with the outside world," Lavrov added. He stressed that he does not believe Russia's "Western partners" are "striving hard to return to the Cold War." But Lavrov urged the West to shed its stereotypes of Russia and its "desire to view every Russian move within the CIS as a manifestation of imperial ambitions." VY

NO-CONFIDENCE MOTION FALLS SHORT...
Opponents of a no-confidence vote in the State Duma torpedoed the effort on 9 February when its Communist and Motherland backers failed to muster a quorum, Russian media reported. More than 300 deputies in the 450-member chamber refrained from voting, dooming the motion, while just 112 deputies voted in favor of sacking Mikhail Fradkov's government. The pro-government majority rejected initiatives on open voting and the live televised broadcast of the vote. TV-Tsentr commented on 9 February that the motion's failure demonstrated once again that the Kremlin calls the shots in the Duma, while the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party managed to demonstrate to the electorate a token opposition to the unpopular social-benefits reform. VY

...AS OPPOSITION ASSAILS FRADKOV GOVERNMENT...
Speaking ahead of the abortive no-confidence vote on 9 February, Yeltsin-era Labor and Social Development Minister Oksana Dmitrieva (Independent) charged that "mistakes by Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov have cost the country 550 billion rubles [$20 billion] and the miscues of Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin in fiscal policy and the stabilization fund [have cost another] 1 trillion rubles," RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "Those figures exceed all our expenditures on defense, national security, and social security, and I am not sure that we need such a costly government." Dmitrieva noted that capital flight totaled $18 billion in the first nine months of 2004, in comparison with $10 billion for the same period one year earlier. Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said on 9 February that Russia has been transformed under President Vladimir Putin into an "antisocial state in which citizens are subjected to super-exploitation," newsru.com reported. Duma deputies subsequently rejected a resolution backed by the Motherland party holding the cabinet legally responsible for the effects of its socioeconomic policy. VY

...AND UNIFIED RUSSIA GIVES TWO-MONTH 'ULTIMATUM'
Duma Deputy Valerii Bogomolov told Ekho Moskvy on 9 February that Unified Russia will revisit the possibility of a no-confidence vote in two months if Prime Minister Fradkov's government does not correct its mistakes, ITAR-TASS reported. Bogomolov called the warning an "ultimatum." Unified Russia has already given Health and Social Development Minister Zurabov until 3 March to improve the situation surrounding the social benefits and medicines. AH

PRIME MINISTER ADMITS MISTAKES WERE MADE...
Prime Minister Fradkov told the State Duma on 9 February that as "head of the government" he is "not walking away from responsibility and has drawn lessons from [the controversy over the social-benefits reform] for myself," ITAR-TASS reported. Fradkov added that as far as those who are responsible for the shortcomings in the benefits reform are concerned, "those guilty will get their just desserts." "With such a grand reform under way, all the detailed calculations should indeed have been made, and all the risks and consequences weighed, so as to get involved properly in the implementation of this Law 122 at all levels from the very beginning." JAC

...AS PENSIONERS, DOCTORS STRUGGLE WITH NEW HEALTH-CARE REQUIREMENTS
Russia's system for dispensing free or discounted medicines to those eligible is experiencing some hiccups during the transition to a system based on cash rather than in-kind benefits, "Argumenty i fakty," No. 6, reported. Yaroslavl pensioner Aleksandr Sidorenko told the weekly that in order to receive medicine "one needs to have a healthy constitution," since he had to stand in a line at his doctor's office for four to five hours. In Tula, physician Olga Gorelova explained that she had to ensure that each patient has a certificate confirming his or her eligibility for free medicine and then she has to compare the certificate with the federal register of persons eligible for benefits. Her clinic has no computer and the forms that the Health Ministry requires 20-40 minutes each to fill out and for each patient two copies are required. JAC

COMMUNISTS WARN OF PROVOCATIONS LINKED TO PENSIONERS' PROTESTS
More than 300 Defense Ministry employees gathered at the Gorbatskii Bridge in central Moscow on 12 February demanding that the government raise their wages, gazeta.ru reported. The protest was organized by the Federation of Trade Unions for Workers and Employees of the Armed Forces. Meanwhile, organizers planning large nationwide protests against the monetization of social benefits and increases in public utility rates for 10 and 12 February have discovered that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party is planning rallies in favor of the reforms on the same day, and in some cases the two groups were competing for permits to hold rallies at the same location, the website reported. In Saratov, supporters and opponents of the reforms will be meeting in close proximity to each other. The Communist Party's press service issued a press release declaring that the party is expecting "provocations" on 12 February and "we are already officially warning regional authorities about their responsibility for everything that happens." JAC

PUTIN SAID TO DEMAND INCREASE FOR MILITARY VETERANS
Speaking at a meeting with the economic and so-called power ministers on 9 February, President Putin asked Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov about progress in the monetization of benefits for military servicemen (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005), ORT reported. Ivanov responded that the average serviceman's benefits will increase by 31 percent on 1 March, with, for instance, a lieutenant receiving 5,290 rubles ($188) per month. Putin demanded that the increases be extended beyond active servicemen to include veterans, ORT reported. "There are more of them than servicemen, and I consider it wrong to exclude this category from the increase," Putin reportedly said. Finance Minister Kudrin said the necessary funds would come from additional oil-export revenues, ORT reported. VY

POLITICALLY BUFFETED KREMLIN EXPLORES DOMESTIC OPTIONS
The head of the presidential administration, Dmitrii Medvedev, and his deputy, Vladislav Surkov, have convoked a group of political analysts and experts within the Kremlin to consider serious revisions to domestic policies in the wake of the contentious social-benefits reform, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 9 February. The group reportedly includes Gleb Pavlovskii, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Aleksandr Tsipko, Valerii Fadeev, and Valerii Fedorov. Sergei Markov, head of the Institute of Political Research in Moscow, a think tank with close ties to the Kremlin, suggested there is a consensus within the group that the presidential administration should retreat from the tack of managed democracy toward greater dialogue with the public. He said the current environment is highly polarized, with Soviet-style propaganda on government-controlled media on one hand and "rebellion" against moves like the social-benefits reform on the other. Markov encouraged forums for the expression of public opinion and efforts to change the television environment, which he said merely compromises the authorities. VY

KREMLIN SOURCES DENY MOVEMENT AFOOT TO REPLACE CONSTITUTION
Sources within the presidential administration have "categorically denied" media reports that the Kremlin is working toward the adoption of a new Russian Constitution to replace the document approved in 1993, strana.ru reported on 9 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005). VY

MANAGERS OF MANAGED DEMOCRACY CREATE NEW OPPOSITION
"Russkii kurer" reported on 9 February that the Kremlin, specifically deputy presidential-administration head Surkov, is creating a new "liberal" political party called the New Liberal Alternative. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov and Audit Chamber auditor Valerii Goreglyad are leading the competition to head the party. According to the daily, rumors about such a turn of events started last winter when the "old liberal" parties, Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces, failed to make it into the Duma. When those two parties had their paltry representation in the old Duma, the "U.S. and the Council of Europe were ready to reconcile themselves to the peculiarities of local democracy building." Now the "ideologues of managed democracy want to create a certain kind of visible party harmony for export." JAC

DUMA RECONSIDERS BEER
State Duma deputies approved on 9 February a new version of the bill limiting the sale and consumption of beer in public places, gazeta.ru and lenta.ru reported. The first version was approved by the State Duma and Federation Council but vetoed by President Putin on 21 December. The new version, which was drafted by a conciliation commission, bans the sale and consumption of beer in children's, educational, and medical establishments and on all modes of public transportation. According to data from chief health inspector Gennadii Onishchenko, more than 60,000 children and adolescents in Russia are alcoholics and the average age of adolescent beer drinkers is 12-13 years old (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2005). JAC

RUSSIA LINKS TROOP WITHDRAWAL FROM GEORGIA TO CREATION OF ANTITERRORISM CENTER
Ambassador Igor Savolskii told Interfax on 9 February that Moscow intends to make the withdrawal of its troops from Georgia contingent on the creation of a joint Russian-Georgian antiterrorism center that would occupy the bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki abandoned by those Russian troops. The Georgian authorities proposed establishing such an antiterrorism center last summer, but parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze and National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili both said that it should not be located in a border region -- which would exclude Batumi and Akhalkalaki. Savolskii heads a delegation that traveled to Tbilisi later on 9 February to discuss with the Georgian leadership the optimum time frame for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Batumi and Akhalkalaki and a framework treaty on bilateral relations that it is hoped will be signed when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili visits Moscow in May. LF

CHECHEN LEADER SLAMS RUSSIAN HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP, EXONERATES DEPUTY PREMIER
Speaking at a news conference in Grozny on 9 February, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov criticized the Russian human rights group Memorial, accusing its members of remaining silent when Chechen Presidents Djokhar Dudaev and Aslan Maskhadov "forced over 250,000 people to leave Chechnya," Interfax reported. In a clear rebuttal of U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow's 8 February warning that Chechen security forces should desist from abducting civilians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005), Alkhanov affirmed that "the security service led by [First Deputy Prime Minister] Ramzan Kadyrov has nothing to do with kidnappings." LF

KARACHAEVO-CHERKESSIA PRESIDENT INCLUDES FORMER FOES IN NEW CABINET...
Speaking on local television on 4 February, Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia President Mustafa Batdyev said he dismissed the cabinet last month because it proved unable to implement all his plans, kavkazweb.net reported on 9 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2005). Batdyev also fired his administration head, Murat Karaketov, who managed his election campaign in the summer of 2003. The new cabinet includes a number of ministers who served under Batdyev's predecessor, Vladimir Semenov, even though Batdyev had fired the entire republican leadership after winning election in the summer of 2003, branding former Semenov associates as corrupt and unprofessional. Criminal cases were opened against some of those sacked officials. The discovery in November that seven men had been murdered at a dacha owned by Batdyev's son-in-law Ali Kaitov triggered mass protests and demands for the resignation of Batdyev and the republican "power" ministers (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 18 November 2004). LF

...AS FORMER OPPOSITIONIST IS APPOINTED AIDE TO PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY
Presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District Dmitrii Kozak has named Stanislav Derev, the former Cherkassk mayor who lost to former army General Semenov in the 1999 presidential ballot in the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 20 May, 30 July and 17 September 1999 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 October 1999), as his advisor, kavkazweb.net reported on 9 February quoting yufo.ru. Kozak told journalists that Derev's appointment is a reaction to the "serious sociopolitical crisis" in the republic, meaning the protests last fall against President Batdyev. He explained that Derev will advise on socioeconomic issues and interethnic relations but he will not have any executive power. LF

'BUG' FOUND IN AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITIONIST'S OFFICE
An electronic eavesdropping device has been discovered embedded in the wall of the office of Ali Kerimli, chairman of the reformist wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHChP), Turan reported on 9 February. It is unclear when the bug was planted, or by whom. LF

AZERBAIJANI OFFICER'S TRIAL ON MURDER CHARGE AGAIN POSTPONED
The trial of Azerbaijani Army Lieutenant Ramil Safarov on charges of murder resumed in Budapest on 8 February after an 11-week adjournment but was immediately adjourned again as two witnesses, including a second Azerbaijani officer summoned by Safarov as a witness in his defense, failed to appear, Noyan Tapan reported on 9 February. Safarov hacked to death with an axe an Armenian fellow participant at a NATO language-training course in Budapest in February 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February and 24 November 2004). Psychiatrists have determined that Safarov was sane at the time of the killing. LF

CAN AZERBAIJANI YOUTH GROUP UNIFY OPPOSITION?
Razi Nurullaev announced at a news conference in Baku on 9 February that he has resigned as deputy chairman of the AHChP conservative wing in order to align himself with the embryonic youth movement Yokh (No!), according to gazeta.ru on 9 February and zerkalo.az on 10 February. Nurullaev said he hopes Yokh can play a role similar to the youth movements Kmara in Georgia and Pora in Ukraine in uniting opposition forces to bring about a peaceful regime change. He said he traveled to Kyiv in late December to consult with Pora leader Vladislav Kaskiv. But both gazeta.ru and zerkalo.az estimated his chances of doing so as minimal, given that political conditions in Azerbaijan are very different from Georgia in late 2003 and Ukraine in late 2004. In addition, Yokh, which intends to function without a formal leader or statutes, at present numbers only some 20-30 members, most of them without any previous experience of political activism. LF

FBI ENDORSES PRELIMINARY CONCLUSIONS ABOUT CAUSE OF GEORGIAN PREMIER'S DEATH
Two groups of three FBI experts who arrived in Tbilisi on 8 February at the request of the Georgian government to conduct an independent probe into the 3 February death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania confirmed on 9 February Georgian investigators' preliminary conclusion that he died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, but they offered no further comments or insights, Caucasus Press reported. One of the experts praised the professionalism of the Georgian investigating team. Earlier on 9 February, the FBI experts examined the gas heater from the apartment where Zhvania's body was found. Both Georgian and Russian media have speculated that Zhvania might have been murdered. LF

PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER UNHAPPY OVER CHOICE OF NEW GEORGIAN PRIME MINISTER...
Parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 9 February that she was surprised by President Mikheil Saakashvili's choice of Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli to succeed Zhvania as prime minister, Georgian media reported. Burdjanadze said that she and Saakashvili had discussed -- and she believed that they reached agreement on -- a different candidate whom she did not name. She characterized Nogaideli as abrupt and uncommunicative and predicted that tensions will arise between him and the legislature if he does not modify his attitude. Saakashvili told parliament on 9 February that he initially offered the post of prime minister to Burdjanadze, but she rejected it. LF

...BUT MOST PARLIAMENT DEPUTIES PLEDGE THEIR SUPPORT
Some members of the majority United Democrats-National Movement parliamentary faction were similarly unhappy with Nogaideli's nomination, Caucasus Press reported on 9 February. That news agency quoted David Zurabishvili as saying he is ready to tell Saakashvili in person that he considers Nogaideli's candidacy "unacceptable." Faction leader Maya Nadiradze too admitted that Nogaideli is unacceptable to the whole faction, but she predicted that the majority will nonetheless support him as the president's choice. New Rightists leader David Gamkrelidze told journalists on 9 February he considers Nogaideli the least appropriate of the several candidates rumored to be in the running for the premiership because he "acts rashly" and grossly overspent last year from the presidential fund, Caucasus Press reported. ITAR-TASS quoted Gamkrelidze as saying that initially Saakashvili planned to propose as prime minister Valeri Chechelashvili, Georgia's ambassador to Russia, but he was forced to reconsider under pressure from the parliament majority. A second prominent member of the New Rightists faction, Pikria Chikhradze, said that faction will vote against Nogaideli's confirmation. Koba Davitashvili (Conservatives) likewise said his faction will not support Nogaideli's nomination, rustavi2.com reported. Davitashvili criticized the Tax Code drafted by Nogaideli, but at the same time said he is an acceptable finance minister but not a potential prime minister. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT, PRIME MINISTER-DESIGNATE STRESS NEED FOR STABILITY, CONTINUITY
Addressing parliament on 9 February, President Saakashvili hailed as a great achievement the leadership's success in preserving political stability in the wake of Zhvania's death, rustavi2.com reported. Saakashvili said that success demonstrates that state institutions, rather than individuals, serve as the guarantee of stability. Also on 9 February, Nogaideli told a press briefing that he will continue to implement the policies and programs launched by his predecessor, Caucasus Press reported. He singled out as priorities expediting economic reform and reducing unemployment, and pledged to establish "normal and businesslike" relations with parliament, ITAR-TASS reported. Nogaideli said there will be few changes in the cabinet and that Chechelashvili will succeed him as finance minister. LF

KAZAKH PARLIAMENT PASSES ANTI-EXTREMISM BILL
Kazakhstan's Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament) on 9 February passed a draft law on combating extremism, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The bill, which now awaits the signature of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, contains amendments proposed by the upper chamber, including a definition of what constitutes financing extremism. It also provides definitions of political, national, and religious extremism, and it stipulates that the city court of Astana will have the right to declare groups extremist organizations. "Any group calling for liquidation of a legitimate power should be defined as an extremist organization," parliamentarian Serik Abdurakhamov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "Also, those who are causing interethnic hostility." Andrei Kravchenko, an official within the Prosecutor-General's Office, told RFE/RL, "If this draft bill is adopted, then all the Hizb ut-Tahrir-type organizations will be banned on Kazakhstan's territory." DK

KAZAKH FOREIGN MINISTRY OBJECTS TO REMARKS BY SCO ANTITERROR HEAD
Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry has issued a statement disputing recent claims by Vyacheslav Kasymov, director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's (SCO) Regional Antiterrorism Structure, that Kazakhstan harbors terrorist organizations, Kazinform reported on 9 February. In a 7 February interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Kasymov said that in Kazakhstan "there are even lands bought up by firms that belong to the 'bin Ladens.'" Noting that Kazakhstan is a party to the 12 UN antiterrorism conventions, the statement dubbed Kasymov's claims "inappropriate." It continued, "[T]hey contradict the spirit and the provisions of documents signed by the leaders of SCO member states. Such statements are absolutely incompatible with the status of director of a structure in this international organization, and they cast a pall on the SCO's international authority and stature." DK

KAZAKH PROSECUTOR WANTS CHARGES AGAINST ZHIRINOVSKII
Kazakh Prosecutor-General Rashid Tusupbekov has asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Ustinov to consider charges against Russian State Duma Deputy Vladimir Zhirinovskii for disparaging comments the latter made about Kazakhstan in a 17 January interview with Ekho Moskvy, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 9 February. In the interview, Zhirinovskii denied the existence of a Kazakh language and cast doubts on the validity of Kazakh statehood. Tusupbekov noted that such comments are actionable under Article 282 of Russia's Criminal Code, which covers the incitement of interethnic, racial, and religious animosity. But Saulbek Zhamkenuly, an official at the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that prosecution is unlikely. "It is hard to foresee the future course of this issue, since...members of parliament enjoy immunity and it is the Russian Duma that is supposed to decide," Zhamkenuly said. For his part, Zhirinovskii was unapologetic, telling RIA-Novosti on 9 February, "There's no need to take offense. The state of Kazakhstan never existed; you can find that in any textbook." DK

KYRGYZ CONSTITUTIONAL COURT UPHOLDS OPPOSITION LEADER'S EXCLUSION FROM ELECTIONS
Nurlan Sadykov, a lawyer representing former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 9 February that the country's Constitutional Court has confirmed that his client cannot take part in the 27 February parliamentary elections. Otunbaeva, co-chairwoman of the Ota-Jurt opposition movement, was earlier denied registration for failing to meet the five-year in-country residency requirement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005), which she argues should not apply to former diplomats. Having exhausted legal appeals in Kyrgyzstan, Otunbaeva now plans to appeal to international bodies. DK

KYRGYZ RELIGION COMMISSION HEAD SAYS HIZB UT-TAHRIR MEMBERS MUST FACE JUSTICE
Osken Osmonov, the head of Kyrgyzstan's State Commission on Religious Affairs, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 9 February that members of the banned Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir must face justice before the law. Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Osh have allegedly threatened to hold a demonstration on 18 February to protest their illegal status. Bishkek Public and Educational TV reported on 7 February that 20 people were detained in Osh on 3 February for distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets; they were subsequently released. A number of sources have recently indicated that Hizb ut-Tahrir is stepping up its activities in Osh, RFE/RL reported. DK

TAJIK OBSERVER GROUP POINTS TO ELECTION LAW VIOLATIONS
Latif Hadyazoda, head of Tajikistan's Public Center for Election Observation and Monitoring, presented a report on the lead-up to the 27 February parliamentary elections at a news conference in Dushanbe on 9 February, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Hadyazoda said that several violations of election law have been recorded, including use of state property for election campaigning, refusals to register candidates, pressure on election commissions, and unequal conditions for various candidates. Also on 9 February, Social Democratic Party head Rahmatullo Zohirov told a news conference that election commissions in Asht, Khujand, and Sughd have already prepared and signed result protocols even though voting will not take place for more than two weeks. But Abdurahmon Abdumannonov, a spokesman for the Central Election Commission, dismissed Zohirov's allegations as baseless, RFE/RL reported. DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH U.S. OFFICIAL
Laura Kennedy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state and a former ambassador to Turkmenistan, met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on 9 February, turkmenistan.ru reported. Kennedy expressed appreciation for Turkmenistan's help in the war on terror and praised the elimination of exit visas and the registration of several religious groups, Turkmen Television First Channel reported. Kennedy also raised human rights and civil society issues, including the possible resumption of broadcasts by Russia's Mayak radio station, ITAR-TASS reported. Mayak has been off the air in the Turkmenistan since July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 15 July 2004). DK

PROTESTORS BEATEN IN UZBEKISTAN
A group of unidentified women beat up human rights activists Abdujalil Boimatov and Elena Urlaeva as they were preparing to stage a protest in Tashkent on 9 February, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Urlaeva was hospitalized with a concussion after the incident. "I recognized these women," Boimatov told RFE/RL, "they've tried to disrupt some of our events in the past. They were hired by the government. There were a lot of police in the area, but not one of them tried to protect us." Rights activist Sotvoldi Abdullaev told RFE/RL: "We were standing there peacefully, unarmed, for a protest meeting. Suddenly, five or six women approached us, tore up our signs, and attacked us. They beat and kicked Urlaeva." Boimatov is a member of the Erk opposition party, and Urlaeva is a member of the Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Farmers) opposition party; both parties have been unable to obtain registration in Uzbekistan. DK

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT WANTS MORE POWERFUL DIESEL ENGINES...
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka visited the Minsk Engine Plant on 9 February, urging its managers and workers to start producing 300-horsepower diesel tractor engines and 350-horsepower truck engines, Belarusian Television and Belapan reported. Lukashenka also predicted that in the next few years the plant will be able to produce 400 horsepower engines "in cooperation with the world's leading diesel engine makers." Simultaneously, Lukashenka ordered that diesel-engine imports be slashed as much as possible. "Being a country that manufactures tractors, forage and grain harvesters, we cannot buy engines abroad and thereby make considerable part of our economy to be dependent on imports," he said. The Minsk Engine Plant reportedly produces 24 engine models at present, compared to one model in 1994. JM

...AND TIGHTER WORKING DISCIPLINE TO PREVENT TERRORIST ACTS
President Lukashenka on 9 February called on workers of the Minsk Engine Plant to tighten their working discipline, Belarusian Television reported. "We have stability because people are busy working," Lukashenka said in explaining his demand. "As soon as we stop working, they will bring arms, explosives, and say: 'Go and blow it up, we will pay you a great deal.' That is why discipline and order are of big importance." Lukashenka did not disclose to whom he was referring to as "they." JM

BRITISH EMBASSY IN BELARUS CLOSES COMMERCIAL SECTION
British Ambassador in Minsk Brian Bennett told Belapan on 9 February that the British Trade Ministry has decided to close the embassy's commercial section. "The ministry felt the cost of the operation outweighed the benefits," Bennett explained. "The unpredictability of the tax system in Belarus, the strict audit controls, and shortcomings in the legal infrastructure here make doing business in Belarus particularly difficult and investment very risky." JM

NEW UKRAINIAN INTERIOR MINISTER SACKS TWO GENERALS
Newly appointed Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko has dismissed Lieutenant General Serhiy Popkov, deputy interior minister and commander of the Interior Troops, as well as Major General Hennadiy Heorhiyenko, head of the Interior Ministry's Traffic Police Department, Interfax reported on 10 February. According to Ukrainian and foreign media reports, Popkov was on the verge of bringing special-task police troops to Kyiv in late December to break up the Orange Revolution. Papkov denied the media allegations, saying the troops were on battle alert, but never left their deployment units. "This is the very minister the Interior Ministry needs today," President Viktor Yushchenko said on 7 February, while introducing Lutsenko to the Interior Ministry staff. "He is an exceptionally honest man." Lutsenko, an electronics engineer by education, reportedly has not had any previous experience in dealing with the Interior Ministry and police apart from when he led the opposition Ukraine Without Kuchma street protests in 2001-02 and the Orange Revolution protests in November-December 2004 in Kyiv. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT REPORTEDLY ASSAILED WITH SNOWBALLS IN DONETSK
President Viktor Yushchenko arrived in Donetsk on 10 February to introduce newly appointed Donetsk Governor Vadym Chuprun to the regional administration staff, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua/) reported. While approaching the oblast administration building, Yushchenko was pelted with snowballs thrown by a group of supporters of former presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych holding placards reading "Yushchenko [Is An] Impostor" and "Forever with Russia." Yushchenko took cover from the bombardment behind his umbrella. He subsequently shook hands with members of a group of his backers who also gathered in front of the oblast administration building. JM

UKRAINIAN TOP PROSECUTOR SAYS YUSHCHENKO PROBABLY POISONED AT DINNER
Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun has said Yushchenko was most likely poisoned around 5 September, the date on which he dined with officials from the Security Service of Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 December 2004), Reuters reported on 9 February. "There is no doubt that this was a planned act, in which several people from the government were probably involved," Piskun said in an interview with the Vienna-based newspaper "Der Standard" released ahead of its publication due on 10 February. "The general timing is around this dinner [on 5 September]. But we cannot say with certainty that it was on this day," Piskun said. JM

MONTENEGRIN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS THAT MONTENEGRIN INDEPENDENCE WILL BENEFIT THE REGION
Montenegrin Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic said at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on 10 February that Montenegro wants to join the EU and NATO as an independent country and not remain a "hostage" of Serbia's reluctance to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. He argued that Montenegro is "patient" and willing to discuss any number of possible political formulas regarding its statehood, providing that they do not compromise its "right to international recognition." He said he believes that Serbia and Montenegro can find a new basis for understanding in a union of independent states, rather than remain in the "non-functioning" joint state in which they currently find themselves. Rejecting arguments that Montenegrin independence would have a destabilizing effect on the western Balkans, Vlahovic stressed that Montenegrin independence would defuse long-standing tensions in both regional affairs and Montenegrin internal politics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2005, "RFE/RL Balkan Report" 27 August 2004, and "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 16 December 2004 and 13 and 20 January 2005). PM

HAGUE PROSECUTORS SEEK TO TRANSFER VUKOVAR CASES TO SERBIA OR CROATIA...
Prosecutors at the Hague-based war crimes tribunal announced on 9 February that they have asked that body to transfer the cases of three former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) officers to courts in either Serbia or Croatia, Reuters reported. Miroslav Radic, Veselin Sljivancanin, and Mile Mrksic have been charged with complicity in the killing of at least 264 Croats and other non-Serbs who were in the local hospital when Vukovar fell to Serbian forces in November 1991. The three men -- known as the Vukovar Three -- have denied the charges. The tribunal is willing to transfer some selected cases to courts in the region in order to lighten its own caseload. Serbia and Croatia both argue that their respective courts are capable of dealing with even the most serious cases, a matter that some experts in The Hague and elsewhere dispute. For most Croats, the siege and fall of Vukovar has become one of the great epics of the 1991-95 war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 June and 19 November 2004). PM

...AS SERBIA WEIGHS IN...
Carla Del Ponte, who is the Hague-based war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, said on 9 February that the arguments for giving the trial of the Vukovar Three to either Serbia or Croatia are "evenly balanced," Reuters reported. In Belgrade, Rasim Ljajic, who chairs Serbia and Montenegro's National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, called for the trial to be held in Serbia, adding that "any sentence passed in Croatia would be received with considerable suspicion" by Serbs. Elsewhere, Serbian President Boris Tadic said that the case should go to Belgrade's Special War Crimes Court, whose "professionalism and objectivity" Tadic claimed are "internationally recognized." He stressed that "any other solution would be destabilizing for the entire region," reflecting a tendency of some Serbian leaders to suggest at times that regional instability will result if Belgrade does not get its way on a given issue. PM

...AS DOES CROATIA
Croatian Justice Minister Vesna Skare Ozbolt said in Zagreb on 9 February that it is imperative that the three be tried in Croatia, where the killings took place, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Elsewhere in the Croatian capital, Andjelko Milardovic of the Center for Political Research asked Reuters: "How could anyone have faith in [Serbia's] judicial system? Not even their own people, let alone Croats. I certainly could not trust them." He added that "Croatian courts are still far from European levels, but we are at least painstakingly moving forward." International critics of the Serbian court have noted in particular problems with witness-protection programs. PM

FORMER SERBIAN MINISTER SAYS THAT ARMY PROTECTED WAR CRIMES INDICTEE
Former Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic told the Banja Luka daily "Nezavisne novine" of 9 February that the army's elite Guard Brigade previously protected war crimes indictee and former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, adding, however, that he cannot confirm that the army is still hiding Mladic. Batic added that "members of the Guard Brigade remained loyal to [former Serbian President] Milosevic like the Taliban." Batic is an attorney for the family of one of two soldiers killed under mysterious circumstances at Belgrade's major Topcider military installation on 5 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 November 2004). Some critics have suggested that the soldiers were shot because they discovered the presence of one or more indicted war criminals at the facility. PM

SERBIAN PRESIDENT TO VISIT KOSOVA?
A spokeswoman for the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) told Reuters in Prishtina on 9 February that her agency "is considering" a request by Serbian President Boris Tadic to visit the province's Serb minority on 13-14 February. If the trip is approved, Tadic will be the first Serbian head of state to go to Kosova since Slobodan Milosevic was there in 1997. On 7 January 2005, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica marked Serbian Orthodox Christmas together with Patriarch Pavle in the western Kosova town of Peja, where a Serbian enclave is surrounded by the ethnic Albanian majority population. Only about 90,000 Serbs remain in Kosova out of some 270,000 who lived there before the 1998-99 conflict, many having fled the wrath of their ethnic Albanian neighbors who regard them as accomplices of Milosevic's ethnic-cleansing policies. Critics charge that rival Serbian politicians are seeking to use the Kosova issue to shore up their popularity ratings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 September and 8 October 2004, and 28 January and 4 February 2005). PM

KOSOVAR SERB LEADER SAYS APPARENT BOMB BLAST WAS POLITICAL
Moderate Kosovar Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service from Mitrovica on 9 February that the explosion under his car the previous night was "clearly politically motivated." Elsewhere, Kosova's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj called the apparent bombing a "cowardly act." Police are continuing to investigate the incident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005). PM

MACEDONIAN ALBANIAN PARTIES DEMAND REGIONAL LEVEL IN STATE ADMINISTRATION
The opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), which recently formed an electoral coalition for the 13 March local elections, have demanded that a third, regional level be introduced in the state administration, "Dnevnik" reported on 9 February. The two parties argue that the current two-level structure -- the central government and the district administrations -- is insufficient in that it does not help offset the different levels of development of the districts, according to the private A1 TV (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 4 February 2005). Rafiz Aliti of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) told A1 TV on 9 February that his party might propose constitutional amendments to create administrative regions uniting several districts. Both the BDI and the PDSH-PPD coalition stress that the formation of administrative regions is not tantamount to the country's federalization, which is feared by many Macedonians as a first step toward an ethnically based partition. UB

THREE LAWMAKERS RESIGN FROM GOVERNING PARTY IN ROMANIA
Democratic Party lawmakers Cozmin Gusa, Lavinia Sandru, and Aurelian Pavelescu announced on 9 February that they will give up their party membership, but will retain their seats in the Chamber of Deputies as independents, "Evenimentul zilei" and other Romanian media reported. Their decision came in response to the Democratic Party leadership's recommendation that the three lawmakers be excluded by the respective local party organizations within one week. Gusa, a former secretary-general of the now-opposition Social Democratic Party who joined the Democratic Party in early 2004, earlier accused the Democratic Party's former chairman, President Traian Basescu, of having worked as an informant for the communist-era Securitate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005). The resignation of the three lawmakers will not threaten the parliamentary majority of the ruling coalition. UB

ROMANIAN SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY EXAMINES ELECTORAL DEFEAT
The Executive Bureau of the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) on 9 February discussed possible reasons for the defeat it suffered in the December parliamentary and presidential elections, Mediafax reported. Former President and PSD founder Ion Iliescu told the meeting that the party suffered from a negative public image that stemmed from corruption among party officials and from a lack of communication. PSD Chairman and former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase admitted that a weak point in the party's election strategy was the fight against corruption, despite his government's efforts in this field. Iliescu agreed with Nastase's proposal that the new PSD leadership, which will be elected at a party congress to be held on 21-22 April, should consist of a party chairman, an executive chairman, and a secretary-general. The formula allows Iliescu to regain a leading position in the PSD (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February 2005). UB

MOLDOVAN FOREIGN MINISTRY PROTESTS RUSSIAN PARLIAMENTARIANS' VISIT TO TRANSDNIESTER
Moldova's Foreign Ministry issued a note of protest to the Russian Embassy in Chisinau on 9 February, saying that the recent visit to Transdniester by a delegation of Russian parliamentarians was unacceptable, Infotag reported. The ministry complained that the Russian side failed to notify the Moldovan authorities about the visit, thus violating existing international practices. The note said that the statements made by the Russian delegation ascribed powers to Transdniester "that exceed by far the framework of this integral part of the Republic of Moldova." "Such a disproportion casts doubt on the mediating role assumed by the Russian Federation in the political settling of the [Transdniester] conflict," it added. UB

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT CALLS ELECTION CAMPAIGN 'APATHETIC,' LEVELS ACCUSATIONS AGAINST OPPOSITION
Moldovan President and Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) Chairman Vladimir Voronin told a press conference on 9 February that the "apathy" of the ongoing election campaign ahead of the 6 March general elections bears the risk of boring the voters, Moldpres and Moldova Azi reported. Referring to the numerous complaints about indications for electoral fraud that were filed by his political opponents with the Central Election Commission, Voronin said the opposition is preparing a "post-electoral putsch." Voronin criticized Coalition 2005 -- an alliance of more than 150 nongovernmental organizations that was established to ensure free and fair elections -- of being biased in favor of the opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 9 February 2005). The president accused the (BMD) of cooperating with the separatist authorities in Tiraspol, "which is also exhibited by the fact that the BMD insists on opening polling stations in Transdniester," Flux quoted Voronin as saying. Experts believe most Transdniestrians would either vote for the BMD or for the Patria-Rodina Bloc. UB

MAJOR EFFORT TO END ROMANY EXCLUSION LAUNCHED IN SOFIA
The leaders of eight East-Central and Southeastern European countries -- Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovakia -- met in Sofia on 2 February to officially launch an ambitious program aimed at overcoming the social exclusion of ethnic Roma.

The idea for the program, called the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, emerged from a conference on the situation of the Roma in the expanding Europe held in Budapest in June 2003. The main sponsors of the new program are the World Bank and the Open Society Institute (OSI). Both World Bank President James Wolfensohn and OSI Chairman George Soros lauded the launch of the Decade for Roma Inclusion as a real change in the international efforts and a major step forward in tackling the problems of the estimated 7 million-9 million Roma, who make up roughly 2 percent of the population of Europe.

The concept of the Decade of Roma Inclusion is quite simple. Each of the participating governments will set goals for improvements in four key areas: education, employment, health, and housing. The main bodies of the Decade of Roma Inclusion -- the International Steering Committee, which is made up of government representatives, Roma from each country, and international organizations -- will help plan those efforts. The program will also provide a framework for monitoring the improvements on the national levels.

At present, a large majority of the Roma in the participating countries is trapped in a vicious circle. Marginalized and often discriminated against by the majority populations, Roma often lack the elementary education that would qualify them for jobs to help overcome poverty. Recent studies by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the International Labor Organization, and the World Bank also show that the lack of qualification is -- at least in part -- also responsible for the poor health of many Roma. Higher-than-average birthrates, high infant mortality, and a low average life expectancy are only part of this problem. The studies also indicate that the shortcomings in the education of Roma also resulted in their lagging participation in politics.

The new program can indeed be a major change for the better if the governments involved fully and conscientiously implement the goals set by the programs and their national action plans. The fact that the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the UNDP, the Council of Europe, and other international organizations are participating in the program as partners gives grounds for optimism.

Over the past 15 years, there have been numerous efforts and programs aimed at improving the situation of the Roma in postcommunist countries. Such programs have sought to improve their qualifications, improve infrastructure and housing conditions, and tackle discrimination, for instance. The EU, the World Bank, the UNDP, NGOs, and charities all sponsored such projects. There was, however, little coordination among all these programs, with the exception the Informal Contact Group of International Organizations on Roma, Sinti and Travellers, where representatives of the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE met on a more or less regular basis from 1999.

Apart from coordination, earlier efforts to improve the situation of the Roma also lacked a sober assessment of their effectiveness. One such assessment was commissioned by the European Commission. The "Review of the European Union Phare Assistance to Roma Minorities," published in December, examined EU-sponsored programs for Roma in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. This report showed clearly that much Phare assistance was spent on education or education-related programs. However, it also demonstrated that a large share of EU assistance was spent on infrastructure projects that had little or no impact. Health programs and health information together made up only about 1.2 percent of all the projects.

In a way, the Decade of the Roma Inclusion is also the result of a growing political consciousness among the Roma themselves. Not only were Romany representatives actively involved in drafting the program; they will also be involved in their respective governments' efforts to implement national plans to improve the social inclusion of Romany minorities. This can prove difficult, however, in light of the fact that a number of Romany NGOs from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have already criticized their governments' lack of cooperation with representatives of the Roma.

"Some governments are demonstrating fundamental misunderstandings of the Roma Decade as a political process," the Prague-based Dzeno Association warned in a written statement on 2 February. "During the next ten years, the countries involved in the Roma Decade will simply continue in the same policies that were started before the Decade. It doesn't seem that the Decade will increase the participation of Roma in the decision making process.... At least in the Czech Republic, the government has failed to make the ideas of the Decade publicly known and really to involve Roma in the preparation process for the so-called Roma Decade Action Plan."

An open letter to the Bulgarian government by Roma NGOs stated on 8 February, "We don't take part in the decision-making concerning us in any way," adding, "And when the decisions are made by others, the responsibility is also not ours."

On an international political level, the coordinating and monitoring functions of the Decade of Roma Inclusion is mirrored to a certain extent by the recent foundation of the European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF), which will serve as an umbrella organization representing Romany interests on the European level. After its official launch in December, the ERTF was recognized by the Council of Europe as a partner organization, and it plans to become a partner organization of the EU as well.

The official launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion and the formation of the ERTF suggest that the Roma might one day be accepted as equal among equals in Europe. But in his speech on the occasion of the signing of the agreement between the ERTF and the Council of Europe, Rudko Kawczynski, the ERTF's interim president, warned on 15 December that this will take time.

"I am well aware that we are only at the beginning of a long journey, and that 700 years of prejudice and exclusion of our people cannot be abolished overnight," Kawczynski said. "But with the path we started to pursue today, we have come decisively closer to that goal."

No wonder, then, that George Soros on 2 February warned: "It will require strong and persistent efforts to overcome [the exclusion of the Roma]. Together, we must make sure that the lofty goals announced today do not turn into empty words."

AFGHAN INTERIOR MINISTRY REJECTS AERIAL-SPRAYING REPORTS
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said in a 9 February press release that it has found no evidence to support claims that opium poppy fields were recently sprayed in southern Helmand Province. Afghanistan's deputy interior minister for counternarcotics, Lieutenant General Mohammad Daud, said the ministry team that investigated the situation "found that a naturally occurring disease affected" the areas in question. According to Daud, the claims of aerial spraying of herbicides was "propaganda disseminated by enemies of the Afghan government" to create mistrust between Kabul and the provinces and between Afghanistan and its "friends in the international" community. On 6 February, Helmand Province Governor Sher Mohammad Akhondzada claimed that poppy fields in the province's Nawzad District had been sprayed with a "poisonous substance" by unidentified aircraft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 9 February 2005). AT

TWO BOMBERS SAID TO HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN ATTACK ON NORTHERN WARLORD
Pajhwak News Agency reported on 9 February that two suicide bombers were involved in the failed 20 January attempt to assassinate General Abdul Rashid Dostum. An Afghan government source told Pajhwak on condition of anonymity that an Afghan identified as Nuroddin, and an Arab identified as Qutboddin blew themselves up during the attack, not one bomber as previously disclosed. According to the source, the two bombers entered Afghanistan from Pakistan and stayed in the northern Balkh Province before carrying out their attack in Jowzjan Province, west of Balkh. The official investigative team dispatched by Kabul has yet to comment on the case (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 January 2005 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005). AT

NEW DELHI GIVES APPROVAL FOR TALKS ON GAS PIPELINE
The Indian cabinet has given the green light for negotiations with Turkmenistan on the possibility of laying a trans-Afghan gas pipeline to India, All India Radio reported on 9 February. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) natural-gas pipeline project, if realized, would bring Afghanistan enormous financial benefits. However, without Indian markets the plan to build the pipeline will not be economically feasible. TAP project members invited India to join in April 2003 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 27 February 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 April 2003). India is reportedly planning to import gas from Myanmar through Bangladesh and from Iran and Turkmenistan via Afghanistan and Pakistan. AT

KABUL GOVERNOR WANTS MORE AUTHORITY
Kabul Governor Sayyed Hosayn Anwari has asked President Hamid Karzai to expand his authorities so he can better manage the province's affairs, Afghan News Agency reported on 9 February. In an official petition, Anwari complained about the divisions and disorganization of affairs in Kabul's administrative system and said that the province cannot move forward until these issues are addressed. Anwari, who previously served as agriculture minister, was appointed governor of Kabul Province in December 2004. AT

LEBANESE SHI'A LEADER ENCOURAGES IRANIAN UNITY
Lebanese Shi'a spiritual leader Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah said on 6 February that Iran is a target of the U.S. government, the Lebanese National News Agency reported. He called for unity among the Iranian people so they can confront conspiracies, "because the political and security circumstances surrounding Iran at this stage are no less dangerous than those that confronted it immediately after the victory of the revolution." He said Iran will have a bigger regional role in the future. BS

IRAN BUYS AUSTRIAN SNIPER RIFLES
Austrian arms manufacturer Steyr-Mannlicher has exported 800 sniper rifles to Iran, ORF television, AFP, and "Wirtshaftblatt" reported on 9 February. The Austrian Interior Ministry issued an export permit for the .50 caliber rifles, which have a 1,500-meter range, and depending on the type of ammunition, can penetrate armored vehicles. "We asked the Iranians to give us a certificate stating that the end user of the weapons would be the Iranian police, who would use it to protect the country's borders and to combat drug trafficking," said Austrian Interior Ministry spokesman Rudolf Golilla, AFP reported. According to "Wirtshaftblatt," the Defense Industries Organization and the Drug Control Headquarters are listed as recipients of the rifles, too. The former organization is part of the Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry. Austria's Social Democrat Party has reportedly asked the foreign minister and the interior minister to come to the legislature to discuss the issue behind closed doors. BS

IRAN, U.A.E. SIGN COUNTERNARCOTICS MEMO
Iran's Deputy Interior Minister Ali Asqar Ahmadi and the United Arab Emirates' Interior Ministry undersecretary, Major General Saif Abdullah al-Shaafar, recently signed a memorandum of understanding on drug control, Abu Dhabi's WAM reported on 8 February. The memorandum addresses the trafficking of drugs and psychotropic substances and the precursor chemicals used to make them. BS

CAR BOMB ROCKS CENTRAL BAGHDAD
A car bomb at a crowded intersection in central Baghdad on 10 February killed at least three people and wounded at least four, international news agencies reported. The blast, which U.S. military officials said came from a remote-controlled car bomb, went off shortly after a U.S. patrol passed central Baghdad's Tahrir Square, Reuters reported. The U.S. patrol had just passed a four-wheel-drive vehicle in the square when it exploded, destroying three nearby cars, AFP reported, citing witnesses. The U.S. patrol was unscathed. BW

MORE THAN 20 SLAIN TRUCKERS FOUND NEAR BAGHDAD
Police found the decomposing bodies of more than 20 truck drivers lying in their burned out vehicles near Baghdad on 10 February, AFP reported. The drivers were part of a convoy bringing sugar to Baghdad for food warehouses that distribute monthly rations. Their bodies were found on a road south of Baghdad between Suwairah and Salman Pak -- part of the so-called "Triangle of Death," which is notorious for insurgent attacks. "The bodies were rotting in the vehicles, which indicates the attack was at least two days ago," AFP quoted an unidentified official as saying. BW

IRAQ ANNOUNCES PLANS TO TEMPORARILY CLOSE BORDERS
In an effort to boost security, Iraq's government announced on 10 February that it will close all its borders for five days starting next week, Reuters reported. The borders will be closed from 17-22 February. The government gave no specific reasons for the closure. The dates, however, coincide with the climax of the Shi'ite religious ceremony Ashura. The ceremony was attacked last year by multiple suicide bombers in Baghdad and Karbala, resulting in at least 171 deaths. It is also possible that the results of Iraq's election will be announced during the period, Reuters reported. BW

IRAQI ELECTION OFFICIALS BEGIN RECOUNTING 300 BALLOT BOXES
Election officials on 10 February began recounting votes from 300 ballot boxes, but are unable to say when they will be able to announce final results, international news agencies reported. The Iraqi Election Commission, which was originally expected to announce the results on 10 February, said it needed to recount about 300 ballot boxes, and plans to release final results later this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005). "The checking of the votes is going on and the result will be known in a few days," AFP quoted commission official Farid Ayar as saying. BW

OFFICIAL SAYS SECURITY COSTS HARMING IRAQI RECONSTRUCTION
As much as one-quarter of the U.S. money spent to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure is being spent on security costs, Reuters reported on 10 February citing Bill Taylor, director of the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO). As a result of the high cost of security, work on rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure is being cut back, Taylor added. "The violence has increased the cost of doing business in Iraq," Taylor said. "It has caused delays, caused us to have to spend more to secure contractors, to secure convoys and to provide security for base camps." Washington has pledged $18.4 billion to help rebuild Iraq, but the IRMO says its efforts have been damaged by the insurgency in many parts of the country. "I've had estimates from individual contractors that their security costs were going to be 10 to 15 percent, and it's now 20 to 25 percent of the total," he said. "It's that kind of cost increase we're talking about." Taylor said the IRMO had paid out only $2.9 billion of its $18.4 billion budget, but had signed contracts worth $8 billion more. BW

GENERAL SAYS U.S. PLANS POSTELECTION TROOP REDUCTION
A U.S. general has said that the United States is planning to reduce troop numbers from the peak they hit due to the Iraqi election, international news agencies reported on 10 February. Lieutenant General Lance Smith said in Washington that between 19,000 and 32,000 U.S. troops will leave in coming weeks, bringing the total down to 135,000-140,000, AFP reported. Meanwhile, U.S. officials at a NATO meeting in Brussels said at least six alliance states have offered some help for Iraqi security forces, through training or funds, AFP reported, citing unidentified officials. BW

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