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Newsline - February 16, 2005

President Vladimir Putin met on 15 February with State Duma faction leaders and told them that he does not intend to dismiss the government, Russian media reported. Putin blamed the current crisis over the implementation of the government's social-benefits reforms on "glitches," although he added that "it was possible to implement these decisions without the glitches that people have encountered," "The Moscow Times" reported on 16 February. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii, who attended the meeting, said that Putin agreed to hold similar talks three times a year, with the next gatherings set for March and September, ITAR-TASS reported on 15 February. Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov also urged increased contacts between the Kremlin and the opposition. "The country must have a dialog," Zyuganov said. "It is necessary to restore state television with the opposition participating." RC

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who attended the 15 February meeting with President Putin, said that Unified Russia will use its majority in the Duma to prevent any amendments to the constitution, ITAR-TASS reported. "As the leader of the faction that has the constitutional majority, I pledge that we will use it for preserving the existing constitution." Many analysts, most notably National Strategy Institute head Stanislav Belkovskii, have claimed in recent days that the Kremlin is planning to revise the constitution or to replace it with a view to maintaining the current elite's hold on power after Putin's term expires in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005). RC

Members of the public organization Committee-2008 and representatives of liberal political parties and nongovernmental organizations, including Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), met on 15 February to discuss ways of forming a united democratic, opposition party, and other Russian media reported. Participants named a working group consisting of INDEM foundation head Georgii Satarov, Our Choice leader Irina Khakamada, and "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal" Deputy Editor Aleksandr Rykhlin to continue the discussion process. "I think the meeting was a success," Yabloko deputy head Sergei Ivanenko told "All participants explained their points of view and agreed to continue the consultations." Khakamada told Interfax that both Yabloko and SPS presented proposals for a united organization and expressed a willingness to "move closer together ideologically, to change their party names, to change their leadership, and to create joint regional organizations." She predicted that the new united organization could field candidates for the December elections to the Moscow City Duma. RC

WEBSITE: KREMLIN'S IMAGE ENHANCED BY OPPOSITION MOVES on 15 February commented that because the Kremlin is more concerned with Russia's image abroad than with perceptions at home, the current unrest and other opposition tactics are enhancing its democratic credentials. "The public-relations picture appears as follows: The inevitable reforms have prompted the understandable indignation of the population. The authorities, contrary to the views that Western public opinion have formed about the nature and essence of the regime, have not only not set about suppressing these disturbances, but have actually widened the dialog between the regime and the opposition," the website wrote. The website cited President Putin's meeting with Duma faction leaders, the widespread demonstrations, the recent hunger strike by Motherland Duma deputies, and the unsuccessful no-confidence vote in the Duma on 9 February as examples of this dialog that the Kremlin can use to "show itself to best advantage to the world community" in the run-up to the 24 February U.S.-Russia summit in Bratislava. RC

Special forces troops in St. Petersburg on 15 February successfully freed businessman Boris Suris, an Israeli citizen who was kidnapped on 8 February, and other Russian media reported on 16 February. Suris, 33, is the director of a company called Akhlama, which is the official distributor of the Herbalife diet program in Russia. Police suspect that the kidnapping, in which the kidnappers sought a ransom of $2 million, was the result of a dispute with a business partner. Details of the rescue operation were not released. RC

The Kyoto Protocol, an international accord intended to slow the emission of gases widely believed to contribute to global warming, came into effect on 16 February, 90 days after the submission of documents confirming Russia's ratification of the agreement, Russian and international media reported. The Economic Development and Trade Ministry has submitted to the government its plan for Russia's adherence to the accord, "Vedomosti" reported on 15 February. The plan calls for an 8 percent increase in energy efficiency by 2010 and an increase in reforestation by 15-25 percent. By 2010, losses during the production and shipping of natural gas are to be cut by 47 billion cubic meters, according to the plan. Ministry official Vsevolod Gavrilov told the daily that the reduction in pollutants that accompanied the collapse of Russian industry in the 1990s is not sufficient to enable Russia to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. He said Russia must increase energy efficiency, establish a system for monitoring emissions, develop alternative sources of energy, and institute a system for assigning and distributing emissions quotas. RC

The diet of average Russians has become significantly worse in recent years, according to a study conducted in 40 federation subjects by experts of the Federal Consumer Protection Inspectorate, reported on 16 February. Russia's chief health inspector, Gennadii Onishchenko, told the website that poor diets are negatively affecting children's growth rates and that average Russians do not get enough vitamin C, calcium, iodine, iron, and other vitamins and minerals. At the same time, many Russians consume too much sugar and fats, he added, leading to increases in obesity, various forms of diabetes, and osteoporosis. He said that poor nutrition among pregnant women is to blame for increases in infantile anemia, allergies, rickets, and other ailments. According to a study by the Academy of Sciences, 80 percent of Moscow schoolchildren suffer from vitamin deficiencies and 15 percent are overweight. RC

Federal Construction and Communal Services Agency Director Vladimir Averchenko told a Duma hearing on 15 February that Russia's housing stock is in a "critical condition," RBK reported. He said that more than 62 percent of housing in Russia is more than 30 years old and that 35.7 million square meters of housing are officially considered to be uninhabitable. More than 14.3 million Russian families live in "unimproved housing" without such amenities as hot water or sewage disposal. Averchenko told deputies his agency needs 1.3 trillion rubles ($43.3 billion) to improve the overall condition of housing in Russia. RC

President Putin has submitted the name of incumbent Vladimir Oblast Governor Nikolai Vinogradov to the oblast legislature to be confirmed for another term in office, RIA-Novosti reported on 16 February. Vinogradov is the third incumbent to be reappointed since the advent at the beginning of the year of a political reform that eliminated the direct election of regional executive-branch heads. The Tyumen Oblast legislature is expected to confirm the nomination of Tyumen Oblast Governor Sergei Sobyanin on 17 February. RC

A group of victims of a controversial 10-14 December police operation in Blagoveshchensk have agreed to end their demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry in Moscow, RTR reported on 15 February. After meeting with ministry officials, demonstrators said they were satisfied with the information they were given and that they have agreed to end the two-day protest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). Earlier, demonstrators had called for a second, more thorough investigation into the operation and for the resignation of Bashkortostan Interior Minister Rafail Divaev. ORT reported on 15 February that five Bashkortostan police officials have been charged in connection with the operation. RC

In a commentary published in the "International Herald Tribune" on 16 February and pegged to next week's Russia-U.S. summit in Bratislava, Akhmed Zakaev, who is Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's envoy in Western Europe, condemned what he described as Washington's acquiescence to President Putin's policy of installing a puppet government in Chechnya and stepping up reprisals against the region's civilian population. Zakaev argued that those methods have led only to the emboldening of the radical wing of the Chechen resistance at the expense of the moderates, and, by extension, to the terrorist attack in Beslan and the emergence throughout the North Caucasus of "terrorist groups that no one is able to control." He predicted that sooner or later such groups will succeed in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. LF

Zakaev said in his commentary in the "International Herald Tribune" that radical field commander Shamil Basaev, who claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist acts, including Beslan, has endorsed the unilateral cease-fire announced by Maskhadov last month (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 February 2005). Zakaev termed that cease-fire offer "a unique opportunity, perhaps the last " to end the war peacefully, adding that ignoring that offer will lead to "further radicalization of the Caucasus" and more terrorist acts for which apologists for Russia's policies will share responsibility. Meanwhile pro-Moscow Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Akhmed Dakaev told Interfax on 15 February that Chechen militants are continuing offensive operations despite Maskhadov's call to refrain from such operations for the month of February. LF

In an interview with the weekly "Yerkir," Serzh Sarkisian stressed that Yerevan has no plans for military cooperation with Iran, and that mutual visits by the Armenian and Iranian defense ministers focus on consultations on security issues, Noyan Tapan reported on 15 February. Asked how Yerevan would react to a U.S. request for permission to launch an attack on Iran from Armenian territory, Sarkisian said he thinks Washington will succeed in resolving its differences with Tehran peacefully. A U.S.-Iranian war would be dangerous for Armenia insofar as "any tension, especially in the military sphere, can become a detonator," he said. LF

Sarkisian also told "Yerkir" that incorporating into official policy the demand that Turkey formally acknowledge as genocide the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 has strengthened national security, Noyan Tapan reported on 15 February. If Ankara indeed recognizes the genocide, Sarkisian continued, the perception of Turkey as a permanent threat to Armenia will diminish, bilateral relations will proceed to "a new stage," and security will be further enhanced. LF

Levon Mkrtchian, who heads the parliament faction of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), rejected as "unserious" on 15 February an invitation extended to HHD leaders the previous day to travel to Turkey to embark on a dialogue aimed at allaying Turkish suspicions concerning the HHD's nationalist agenda, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Mkrtchian said it is unclear whom Kaan Soyak, the Turkish-Armenian Business Council co-chairman who extended that invitation on 14 February, really represents, or what his objectives are (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). LF

Some 100 of the total 842 inmates at high-security prison No. 11 near Baku escaped from their cells and congregated on the roof of the three-story building on 15 February to demand the resignation of prison governor Oktai Gasymov, whom they accused of brutality, Turan and Western news agencies reported. Having initially ruled out the use of force against the protesters, the Azerbaijani authorities deployed some 100 Interior Ministry troops and riot police to the prison. Journalists reported gunfire and explosions during the early morning hours of 16 February, after which fire hoses were trained on the protesters, who finally capitulated several hours later. Turan reported that an unspecified number of prisoners and Interior Ministry troops were injured, and that pools of blood were visible in front of the prison building. The Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case in connection with the protest, which triggered similar demands at prisons No. 12 and No. 13. The standoff in those jails ended without confrontation or armed intervention, Turan reported on 16 February. LF

Members of the right-wing parliament opposition claimed on 15 February that the government's new three-year action program is based on measures planned by the Shevardnadze regime prior to its ouster in November 2003, Caucasus Press reported. Prime Minister-designate Zurab Noghaideli outlined that program on 15 February to the parliament's Budget and Finance Committee, which then approved Noghaideli's nomination and the composition of his cabinet. Also on 15 February, President Mikheil Saakashvili warned staff and faculty members at Tbilisi State University that Georgians must overcome their mentality of dependence on the state to fulfill their needs, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Jean-Marie Guehenno, who is UN Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, held talks in Sukhum on 16 February with Abkhaz parliament speaker Nugzar Shuba, Caucasus Press reported. Guehenno said that the Georgian leadership is committed to resolving the Abkhaz conflict peacefully, but Ashuba questioned that assertion, pointing out that in his address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last month President Saakashvili implied that Georgia might resort to force. (The version of Saakasvhili's speech circulated by the Georgian Foreign Ministry contained no such threat.) Ashuba further questioned why the U.S. and NATO are helping Georgia to strengthen its armed forces, and whom that military might will be used against. LF

Leading figures in the opposition party Ak Zhol held two press conferences to announce on 14 February a possible split in the party, "Navigator" reported the next day. A possible rift in the party emerged when co-Chairman Alikhan Baimenov called a party meeting on 13 February and successfully lobbied for a no-confidence vote against fellow co-Chairman Altynbek Sarsenbaev. Baimenov said on 14 February that relations within the party's leadership deteriorated after September 2004 parliamentary elections, in which the party gained only a single seat in parliament. He added that recent disagreements over organizing activities by the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces, an umbrella opposition group, have exacerbated the situation. Sarsenbaev held his own news conference on 14 February with his supporters from Ak Zhol, including fellow co-Chairman Bulat Abilov, Oraz Zhandosov, and Tolegen Zhukeev. Abilov accused Baimenov of failing to cooperate with the Coordinating Council and thus reducing the opposition's chances of presenting a united front against the regime of President Nursultan Nazarbaev. DK

Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov met with Hungarian officials in Budapest on 15 February, including Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and National Assembly Speaker Katalin Szili, Khabar Television reported. Akhmetov's visit focused on trade issues, with the prime ministers discussing ways to raise bilateral trade volume from its current level of $100 million a year. The Kazakh prime minister also met with Hungarian businessmen during his two-day visit, and he told Kazinform that a number of Hungarian entrepreneurs will soon visit Kazakhstan to discuss investment projects. DK

OSCE Chairman in Office and Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel visited Kazakhstan on 15 February for talks on Kazakhstan's cooperation with the OSCE, as well as security and human rights issues, Khabar Television reported. A meeting with Senate speaker Nurtai Abikaev focused on the issue of reforms in the OSCE, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Khabar noted that Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev has stressed the need for the OSCE to balance its current focus on human rights with greater attention to security issues. While Rupel offered praise for Kazakhstan's democratic reforms, he also noted that OSCE observers found fault with the September 2004 parliamentary elections and he expressed concern over a recent court decision to dissolve the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, Ljubljana STA reported. DK

In an open letter on 14 February to Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev from Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Europe and Central Asia division, the rights organization expressed concern over government actions in the lead-up to the 27 February parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan. Noting that Kyrgyz officials have warned repeatedly of the danger of a "Ukraine scenario" in Kyrgyzstan, the letter drew attention to harassment of opposition political figures and limitations on freedom of assembly. The letter stated: "The question is whether the Kyrgyz government will meet public demands for responsive government and fair elections, or resort to violating fundamental rights to avoid a repeat of Ukraine's 'Orange Revolution.'" The letter, which is posted on the HRW web site (, closed with recommendations "to improve the protection of basic rights in Kyrgyzstan." They include legislative changes to ensure basic freedoms, the removal of in-residency restrictions that effectively prevent former diplomats from running for office, and an end to the harassment of the political opposition. DK

Tajikistan's Public Center for Election Observation and Monitoring has presented its second report on the lead-up to the 27 February parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 15 February. Center head Latif Hadyazoda detailed allegations of registration violations, pressure on voters, and vote-buying. For example, Hadyazoda noted that, according to opposition parties, the head of the Shohmansur district in Dushanbe gathered 200 voters at a school and urged them to vote for candidates from the ruling People's Democratic Party. DK

Rustam Shoghulomov has been removed from his position as head of the Uzbekistan Press and Information Agency, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 15 February. Bobur Alimov, a former head of the Sharq publishing house, has been appointed to replace Shoghulomov. For his part, Shoghulomov will continue to occupy the post of director of the Uzbekistan publishing house, Tribune-uz reported. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka participated in Minsk on 15 February in the inauguration of the "House of Justice," an edifice accommodating three district courts, Belarusian Television and Belapan reported. The construction project was part of a nationwide program to improve judiciary facilities. "The ranks of judges should be immaculately clean," Belarusian Television quoted Lukashenka as saying. "The judiciary in our country is very authoritative. This is a great achievement that cannot be lost under any circumstances." JM

The German Embassy in Minsk has urged Belarus to step up the fight against document forgery, responding to media accusations that it has been tolerant toward the illegal entry of Belarusian women to Germany, Belapan reported on 15 February. The embassy said on 14 February that Minsk has not so far been the focus of a Bundestag inquiry into visa abuses, but this may change if the Belarusian law-enforcement agencies fail to demonstrate consistency in fighting forgery. The German media has recently reported that organized criminal gangs developed a scheme of paying unemployed Germans to pledge to support visiting tourists from Ukraine and Belarus and thus meet a major demand for issuing visas to such tourists. The German Embassy in Kyiv has reportedly issued some 300,000 visas to Ukrainians supposedly traveling to see Cologne Cathedral. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told a forum of investors organized by Russia's Renaissance Capital association in Kyiv on 15 February that he hopes to start talks on Ukraine's EU membership immediately after the fulfillment of a recently updated three-year Ukraine-EU action plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005), Interfax reported. According to Yushchenko, as soon as this year Kyiv intends to secure Brussels's recognition of Ukraine as a free-market economy as well as soften its visa regime for EU citizens. "Let no one get the impression that our nation is standing in short pants at the gates of Europe, knocking to get inside," Reuters quoted Yushchenko as saying. "We are not Europe's neighbors. We are the center of Europe. What we are is the EU's neighbor. And we want EU membership." JM

President Yushchenko said in Kyiv on 15 February that he will replace all former leaders of the executive branch at the regional level, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. Yushchenko was addressing a congress of the Association of Farmers and Private Landowners. "Nobody will be invited to this government [from those] who worked against us during the elections in November-December 2004," Yushchenko said. "We will not leave in the new government any [previous] raion administration head. Not a single head of the [oblast and raion] departments of interior affairs will remain in his post. The same principle will be applied to [regional] tax administrations." Yushchenko added that he needs to make some 5,000-6,000 appointments in the executive branch in the near future. Yushchenko appointed all oblast governors on 4 February, but still has to appoint their deputies as well as raion administration heads. JM

The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office's press service said on 16 February that forensic experts from the Health Ministry will hold an additional examination of the body of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was found dead in November 2000, Interfax and UNIAN reported. Ukrainian experts are going to hold the examination jointly with forensic specialists from Munich. A forensic-medicine institute in Zurich will reportedly conduct a separate, "parallel" examination. President Yushchenko pledged to a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in January to make every effort to assist the investigation of Gongadze's killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2005). According to the so-called Melnychenko tapes, former President Leonid Kuchma and former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko may have been involved in the kidnapping and killing of Gongadze. The current whereabouts of Kravchenko are unknown. Kuchma arrived in Karlovy Vary, the Czech Republic, on 15 February for spa therapy, CTK reported. JM

Concluding a visit to Austria, Kosova's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj told the Vienna daily "Der Standard" of 16 February that "there is no indictment against me" from the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, the private Beta news agency reported. He added that "there is only the indictment against me fabricated by the Belgrade regime. I am awaiting confirmation [from The Hague] that there is no investigation of me." He did not elaborate. Haradinaj hopes that most issues regarding Kosova's independence will be settled in 2005, adding that he wants Brussels to give a clear perspective for EU membership to both Kosova and Serbia. Asked about the "Europeanization of Kosova" proposed by Erhard Busek, who heads the EU-led Balkan Stability Pact, Haradinaj replied that the EU and the United States work well together in the province. He stressed, however, that "during the talks on [Kosova's final] status, we want the United States to play a greater role" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 22 December 2004 and 13 January 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 December 2004 and 7 and 21 January 2005). Haradinaj has said on several occasions that he will voluntarily go to The Hague if he is indicted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 November and 8 December 2004). PM

The Republika Srpska's parliament voted 46-33 on 15 February to approve a new cabinet headed by Pero Bukejlovic of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Voting in favor were deputies from the SDS, the Serbian Radical Party of the Republika Srpska, the Party of Democratic Progress, and the Deputies' Club of the Center, which is a coalition of smaller parties. Also supporting the Bukejlovic government were one deputy each from the Democratic People's Alliance and the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Voting against the proposed cabinet were legislators from the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), the Socialist Party of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian Radical Party "Dr. Vojislav Seselj," the Party of Democratic Action, the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the New Croatian Initiative. The cabinet includes eight Serbs, five Muslims, and three Croats. It replaces the government of Prime Minister Dragan Mikerevic, who resigned on 17 December to protest some recent moves by High Representative Paddy Ashdown that many Bosnian Serbs say undermine the integrity of the Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 30 December 2004). PM

Republika Srpska Prime Minister Bukejlovic said in Banja Luka on 15 February that he intends to make cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal a priority, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He stressed, however, that "cooperation with the international war crimes court is not an event but a process, which will continue as long as indictees remain at large." Bukejlovic also pledged to adopt "EU standards regarding human rights and freedoms [and continue] the fight against corruption and [organized] crime." But former Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik of the SNSD told Reuters that the government is not capable of taking the steps required to win the approval of the international community. He recently criticized Bukejlovic's nomination, saying that the SNSD will not "back [the nomination of] various cretins and fools" to high office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). The Bosnian Serb authorities' failure to arrest and extradite 12 war crimes indictees is the main obstacle to Bosnia-Herzegovina's integration into the EU and NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005). PM

Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski asked European parliamentary speaker Josep Borrell in Brussels on 15 February to ensure that the joint European-Macedonian parliamentary committee not be influenced by Macedonia's long-standing dispute with Greece over the name of the Macedonian state, "Utrinski vesnik" and MIA news agency reported. Buckovski told Borrell that unnamed individual Greek members of the European Parliament have dictated the agenda of interparliamentary relations to the advantage of Greek rather than EU interests. Buckovski therefore proposed that the name dispute should not be discussed during the next session of the European-Macedonian parliamentary committee in Skopje in late March. Under Greek pressure, Macedonia is recognized by the UN under the name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) rather than under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia. On 7 February, shortly before his term ended, outgoing Greek President Konstantinos Stefanopoulos said again that the use of the name Macedonia implies territorial aspirations by that country toward Greece, which has a province of the same name, Voice of Greece reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2004 and 24 January 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 June 2003 and 12 November 2004). UB

Romanian Prime Minister and National Liberal Party (PNL) Chairman Calin Popescu-Tariceanu said in a televised interview on 15 February that his party is not interested in holding early general elections at the moment, "Ziua" reported. Popescu-Tariceanu responded to rumors that the PNL and the Democratic Party (PD) could seek early elections to capitalize on their current high ratings in opinion polls (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2005). The prime minister said early elections should not be held before 1 January 2007, when Romania hopes to become a full member of the EU. Popescu-Tariceanu also said that early elections could be held also after Romania signed the EU accession treaty on 25 April, but only in the event of a political crisis, which he does not foresee. He admitted that he discussed the issue with President Traian Basescu, but said that he and the president agreed that the governing coalition should now ensure stability ahead of the country's EU accession. UB

Prime Minister Popescu-Tariceanu announced on 15 February that his government will renegotiate the contract with European defense giant EADS, RFE/RL's Romanian Service reported. Under the contract, EADS is to modernize Romania's border-control system. The contract, which is worth about $845 million, was awarded by the previous government without tender (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005). UB

Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) Chairman and Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean told a news conference on 15 February that all democratic forces in Moldova should adopt a common position to "defend democratic norms and electoral standards" ahead of the 6 March parliamentary elections, reported. Urechean accused the governing Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) and the state authorities of conducting an "undemocratic and unequal" election campaign. Urechean also signaled that the BMD is ready to form a postelection coalition with "all democratic forces that will enter the parliament." UB

Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca said on 15 February that the BMD and the PPCD may join forces after the elections, reported. "It is clear that a maximum of three political formations will be able to win seats in parliament, and that the Communists will not be able to get 61 mandates [in the 101-seat parliament], so they will not be able to elect a president all by themselves," Rosca said. "I guess that in that case the parliamentary opposition should form an anti-Communist coalition. That is the only way Moldova can get rid of Communist rule and become a democratic state." If parliament fails to elect a president in three rounds of voting, Rosca argued, it must be dissolved and new elections called. Rosca added that his party prefers a president who is not a member of any party, adding that the PPCD will never support BMD leader Urechean if he runs for president. UB

The chairman of the governing PCM's parliamentary caucus, Victor Stepaniuc, told journalists on 15 February that the election campaign is unfolding in a correct and transparent way, reported. Stepaniuc said he expects the 6 March parliamentary elections to be the fairest in the last 14 years, citing the record number of election observers monitoring the vote. At the same time, Stepaniuc accused the opposition of planning a revolution similar to the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine. "There is no revolutionary situation in this country, the opposition does not have the capacity to organize a revolution, it has only money," Stepaniuc said, adding that any attempt to bring down the government in a coup d'etat will fail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 14 February 2005). He also ruled out the possibility of the opposition garnering enough votes to force the scenario of early elections predicted by PPCD Chairman Rosca. UB

At the beginning of this month, three European lawmakers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly visited Minsk to see whether the situation in Belarus has changed for the better. They have apparently found nothing new or interesting to report to their colleagues in Europe.

Summing up the three-day trip, Fred Ponsonby of Great Britain told journalists in Minsk on 3 February that the situation in Belarus over the last two years can be considered "stagnant or stable," Belapan reported. Which means, Ponsonby added, that many aspects of life in Belarus have not improved. In fact, many aspects of life in Belarus have actually deteriorated over the past two years, even if their deterioration was not conspicuously fast but had a "stable and stagnant" character.

Belarus ended the year 2004 with two emblematic political events. On 17 October, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a referendum on lifting the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency. Simultaneously, Belarusians went to the polls to elect the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, the country's lower house. According to the official results, Lukashenka's hopes for staying in power indefinitely were supported by 5.55 million people, or 79.4 percent of all eligible voters. And Belarusians officially filled all but one seat in the Chamber of Representatives with Lukashenka's backers and associates.

An independent international pollster found that Lukashenka's proposal to clear the path to a presidency-for-life was supported by just 48.7 percent of all eligible voters, leaving it below the 50 percent threshold required for such a constitutional amendment. However, opposition protests against what appeared to be a blatant falsification of the referendum results were lukewarm, lasted only several days, and gathered several thousand people at best.

Since the 2001 presidential election, the Belarusian opposition seems to have remained in protracted disarray. Sadly, there are no signs that the opposition is able to muster up any significant support for its candidate -- provided it would agree on such a candidate -- to challenge Lukashenka in the presidential election expected in 2006.

To demoralize the Belarusian opposition even further, a court in Minsk on 30 December 2004 sentenced Belarusian opposition politician Mikhail Marynich, 64, to five years in a high-security prison and confiscation of property. The court found him guilty of misappropriating several computers that the Dzelavaya Initsyyatyva (Business Initiative) association, of which he was chairman, had received for temporary use from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.

The bizarre case against Marynich and the harsh sentence he received were of a plainly political character. To compare, on 8 February the Belarusian Supreme Court sentenced Halina Zhuraukova, former head of the presidential administration's Property Management Department, to four years in prison, finding her guilty of embezzling $3.4 million under the same article of the Criminal Code as applied to Marynich.

The 17 October 2004 referendum and the Marynich case have received a fair amount of media coverage both at home and abroad. On a daily basis, however, there are many depressing and gloomy developments that do not make the headlines. Like the aforementioned issues, these developments, too, testify to the growing consolidation of the Belarusian authoritarian regime, which has tasked itself with not only uprooting any political dissent but also curbing any other unwanted or suspicious behavior.

For example, on 11 February police charged activist Aksana Novikava with beggary after she attempted in the subway to raise private donations for what she called an "orange revolution" in Belarus. "Some gave money, some refused to, and some just laughed," Novikava told Belapan. But the police proved to be less amused; Novikava is facing a fine.

On 5 February, police detained opposition activist Syarhey Antonchyk and some 20 people that gathered at his private apartment. Police have accused Antonchyk of organizing an unsanctioned rally and passed his case to court. Antonchyk has a chance of becoming the first person punished in Belarus for inviting friends to dinner.

In January, the authorities fired Rehina Ventsel, a rector of Baranavichy State University, and her deputy Ivan Kitsun. A group of students from their university had cracked a joke about President Lukashenka's salary at a forum of students in Minsk. "Alyaksandr Ryhoravich, how big is your salary?" a student from Baranavichy asked another student who was impersonating the Belarusian leader. "Let me count. As president of the country I get 300 bucks per month. As president of the National Olympic Committee I get another 300 bucks. And I get an extra sum as supreme commander. Generally speaking, not so bad," the other wag from Baranavichy responded. Now all jokes from Baranavichy State University intended for the public reportedly have to be approved by the university's ideological supervisors.

In Minsk, the independent Belarusian-language literary magazine "Dzeyaslou" has recently been removed from Belarusian bookstores run by the Belkniha state distribution network. Belkniha reportedly charged that "Dzeyaslou" propagates smut by printing foul language. "Dzeyaslou" Editor in Chief Barys Pyatrovich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Belarusian bookstores are full of books by Russian authors that contain expletives and nobody talks of banning them.

According to Pyatrovich, the measure against "Dzeyaslou" is purely political -- the magazine has recently published several stories by eminent writer Vasil Bykau, who remained very critical of the Lukashenka regime until his death in June 2003. In November 2004, the Belsayuzdruk state retail sales network for printed publications refused to distribute "Arche," another high-profile independent literary magazine in Belarus, while Belkniha refused to distribute an "Arche" issue that documented Lukashenka's decade in power.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, last week Belarusian state-run bookstores began stocking a book glorifying Soviet-era dictator Josef Stalin. The 700-page book, named "Bow Before Stalin, Europe," is a collection of articles by Stalin as well as texts venerating the Soviet dictator by other authors and political leaders of the past. "This collection, which glorifies Stalin and condemns his closest entourage, is yet another attempt to whitewash the image of the Soviet leader and lay a theoretical foundation for the transition from authoritarianism to totalitarianism that we are witnessing in Belarus," Belarusian independent historian Ihar Kuznyatsou told Belapan.

Neo-Taliban spokesman Latifullah Hakimi on 15 February refuted reports that the militia has negotiated with the Afghan government, Pajhwak News Agency reported. Hakimi challenged the government to name one neo-Taliban member who is negotiating. "Anybody who is talking with the Americans is just bowing down before them," Hakimi added. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters on 14 February that talks with the neo-Taliban are producing good results, with better outcomes expected in the near future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2005). Afghan President Hamid Karzai's spokesman Jawed Ludin told reporters on 15 February that Khalilzad's remarks reflected his personal views, Pajhwak reported. The issue of reconciliation with most members of the neo-Taliban was raised by President Karzai in a speech in April 2003 and Khalilzad has elaborated on the subject since April 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003 and 28 April, 25 October, 8 November, and 8 and 17 December 2004). AT

Kunwar Natwar Singh arrived in Kabul on 15 February for a one-day visit, according to an Afghan presidential press release. President Karzai told Natwar Singh that while "India is not a major donor country -- in Afghanistan, India has been one of the largest contributors." Karzai expressed his hope that India will look favorably at the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline project, which he said would have significant economic benefits for Afghanistan and the region (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 February 2005). Natwar Singh also met with his Afghan counterpart, Abdullah Abdullah, and with Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghan Voice Agency reported on 15 February. AT

President Karzai on 15 February spoke by telephone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about Afghanistan's counternarcotics strategy, according to a presidential press release. Karzai informed Blair about recent successes Afghanistan has achieved in reducing the cultivation of opium poppies, and he reaffirmed his country's "rock-solid commitment" to ridding itself of the "menace of drugs." Karzai is scheduled to meet with visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Kabul on 16 February to discuss the country's counternarcotics implementation plan for 2005, the press release added. The United Kingdom is the lead country in counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan. AT

Kabul police on 14 February arrested five people for reproducing DVD's containing scenes exhibiting naked or semi-naked people, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 15 February. Abdul Latif Ahmadi, head of Afghan Films, said the DVDs contained "immoral films" that are counter to Afghan culture. In addition to the five suspects, police also confiscated recording devices and DVD players. The son of one of the arrestees claimed that the police searched his father's shop and found nothing incriminating, but they nevertheless arrested his father, whom he said was innocent. Kabul police recently launched a crackdown on immoral behavior or practices (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 4 February 2005). AT

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, spokesman of the Association in Defense of Press Freedoms, announced on 15 February that eight people involved in press affairs are currently imprisoned in Iran, ISNA reported. Shamsolvaezin said three of the prisoners -- Ensafali Hedayat, Siamak Purzand, and Arash Sigarchi -- are journalists imprisoned for their reporting, while others -- such as Abbas Abdi, Reza Alijani, Hussein Qazian, and Hoda Saber -- are imprisoned for other reasons not directly related to their reporting. Shamsolvaezin said his 100-member organization began its activities in 2001, and its activities include issuing statements, "interacting with institutions that violate freedom of speech," and writing an annual report on freedom of the press. BS

Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani condemned on 15 February the previous day's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, IRNA reported. He attributed the bombing to the opponents of Lebanese unity and solidarity. A commentary in the 15 February issue of "Etemad" newspaper said Israel is the prime suspect for a number of reasons. First, making it appear that Hariri was assassinated due to differences with Damascus and Hizballah will contribute to ethnic strife, and Israel wants to create a distance between Syria and Hizballah. Second, apparent sectarian disputes in Lebanon will undermine the Shi'a revival in Iraq. Third, the assassination will somehow contribute to Israeli efforts to have Europe add Hizballah to its list of terrorist organizations. Finally, according to "Etemad," because Israel is withdrawing from the Gaza Strip it wants to create problems for outside states that support Palestinian groups. BS

In New Delhi on 15 February, Iran and India extended for two more years a memorandum of understanding on energy issues, IRNA reported. The signing took place on the sidelines of the Third Asia Gas Buyers Summit 2005. National Iranian Gas Export Company board member Mohammad Hadi Rahbari represented Iran, and Gas Authority of India Chairman and Managing Director Proshanto Banerjee represented India. Banerjee said the two sides will study a plan for a natural-gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India, and if all goes well the deal will be concluded in June 2005, when India's Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar visits Iran. BS

Bojnurd parliamentary representative Musa Servati announced on 15 February that Austria's OMV energy company has won a contract to explore for oil in the Raz oil block in North Khorasan Province, ISNA reported. OMV discovered oil in Khuzestan Province's Mehr block on 15 January, IRNA reported. OMV signed a $42 million contract to work the Mehr block in 2001, "Sharq" reported on 16 January, and it accepted all related risks. If oil was not discovered, therefore, OMV would not get paid. BS

An official from the Tehran Province Cultural Miras Organization, Mehdi Memarzadeh, told Radio Farda on 15 February that the Arq Mosque in Tehran did not suffer any serious damage in the previous day's fire, which killed more than 50 people. He acknowledged that many carpets, curtains, and wall hangings were burned, but the building itself only suffered smoke damage and that should not be a problem. If the ceiling beams were damaged, he said, a closer inspection will be necessary. Memarzadeh explained that the women's section of the mosque, which is where the previous day's fire started, is on the second floor, and the ground floor is for men. The mosque dates to the Safavid Dynasty and is located in what was once known as Arg Square (renamed 15th of Khordad Square after the revolution). BS

The Iranian legislature on 15 February approved a bill that would reduce from 70 percent to 49 percent the Iranian affiliate of a Turkish firm's share of a mobile-telephone network, IRNA reported, Radio Farda reported. The majority of shares will be in Iranian hands. The Guardians Council must approve the bill before it becomes law. Communications and Information Technology Minister Ahmad Motamedi warned that Turkcell, the Turkish firm that originally held the majority of the shares, could file a complaint at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Radio Farda reported. Motamedi added that the legislature's action could discourage other foreign firms from entering deals with Iran. BS

Muhsin Abd al-Hamid, head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the two main parties that boycotted the 30 January parliamentary elections, told Al-Sharqiyah television in a 14 February interview that he favors his party's participation in drafting a constitution. He added, however, that the final decision will be up to the Shura council that will present conditions for its participation. Abd al-Hamid said he hopes that political conditions in Iraq will improve so that all parties can take part in December elections, adding, "We [all] will learn from the mistakes that were made in the past and during these elections." He dismissed talk of civil war in Iraq, saying: "We are one people and have been living on this territory for thousands of years with all our various groups.... This sectarianism is a novel thing. We have never felt it at all." He further contended, "The issue of civil war is an external plot against the Iraqi people." KR

Interim Vice President and Islamic Al-Da'wah Party head Ibrahim al-Ja'fari is the preferred candidate among Shi'ite leaders to assume the position of prime minister, Al-Jazeera reported on 15 February, citing sources in the United Iraqi Alliance list. Viewed largely as a moderate, al-Ja'fari told AP in a 15 February interview that Islam "should be the official religion of the country, and one of the main sources for legislation, along with other sources that do not harm Muslim sensibilities." He told AP that security would be his main priority in the transitional government, adding that he would not call for a withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq. Regarding the constitution, he said, "I am looking for a constitution that would be a clear mirror of the composition of the Iraq people...based on respecting all Iraqi beliefs and freedoms." KR

Kurdish leader and interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told Al-Diyar television in a 15 February interview that no deal has been struck between the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish parties to secure the presidency for Patriotic Union of Kurdistan head Jalal Talabani. "We will go to the elected parliament and forge alliances with all the elected political forces or the forces that won seats in the new parliament provided they support the democratic process to build a new Iraq and develop Iraq's economy and avoid any action that might deepen differences among the sons of Iraq," Salih said in a statement. He added that the Kurds have had a long-standing alliance with the Shi'ite parties that comprise the United Iraqi Alliance, going back to the days of opposition outside Iraq. KR

Khalil al-Dulaymi, a lawyer for deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, has reportedly said that six military cells have been set up to kill him, Saudi daily "Al-Watan" reported on 15 February. He claims that Iraqi "resistance intelligence" personnel tasked to protect him have said that three of the cells are made up of Badr Corps forces from the Iranian-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, while three others are made up of Kurdish peshmerga forces. The latest threats against him came following a 16 December meeting with Hussein. Jordanian lawyer Ziyad al-Najdawi told "Al-Watan" that Hussein's defense team has compiled enough documents to refute allegations of Hussein's role in the gassing of Kurds in Halabjah, as well as the former president's complicity in the killing of Iraqis found in mass graves. Meanwhile, the Ba'ath Party's "Saddam Branch Command" claimed responsibility in a 15 February Internet statement ( for the previous day's attack on a U.S. military convoy in Diyala Governorate. KR