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Newsline - February 18, 2005


TOP YUKOS OFFICIALS TESTIFY IN U.S. SENATE
Steven Theede, CEO of embattled oil giant Yukos, and Tim Osborne, director of Yukos's major shareholder Menatep, testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. Senate on 17 February, Russian and international media reported. The hearing was titled "Democracy in Retreat in Russia." Osborne told senators that the companies are "the victims of an illegal, politically motivated campaign," "The Moscow Times" reported on 18 February. Theede added that the assault on Yukos represented "an important economic blow" to "America's energy security." Senator Richard Lugar (Republican-Indiana) criticized the Kremlin for taking steps "to stifle public dissent and political opposition." He urged U.S. President George W. Bush to discuss these issues with President Putin at their 24 February summit in Bratislava. RC

DUMA GIVES SECOND NOD TO PUBLIC-CHAMBER BILL...
The State Duma on 18 February approved in its second reading a bill on the formation of a Public Chamber, the "Rossiiskaya gazeta" website (http://www.rg.ru) reported. The vote was 310 to 74. The proposed chamber will have 126 members, including 42 selected by the president, 42 representatives of public organizations, and 42 representatives of the regions. They will meet in Moscow at least twice a year to discuss state initiatives to promote civil society. On 15 February, the All-Russia Civic Congress met to discuss the chamber, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 16 February. INDEM foundation head Georgii Satarov said the chamber will be "a phantom, a harmful institution," while Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseeva called it "a wax dummy" that would substitute for "the existing civil society in Russia." "In recent years, the transformation of that which is alive into a dummy has become the constant and main preoccupation of our political elite," Alekseeva said. Participants split on the issue of participating in the chamber, with many -- such as Committee-2008 Chairman Garri Kasparov -- calling for a boycott and others -- including Satarov -- saying it might be better to enter the chamber in order later "to make a loud departure from it." RC

...AS BILL'S AUTHOR DEFENDS THE INITIATIVE
Duma Deputy Valerii Galchenko (Unified Russia), one of the principal authors of the public-chamber bill, told strana.ru on 17 February that "the presence of a Public Chamber will be better than its absence." He said that the president will choose chamber members "whom society trusts" and that "the most high-profile people will participate." "It should be noted that competence and professionalism will not be the main selection criteria," Galchenko said. "This is not the main thing -- after all, you can't say that the current Duma is made up of nothing but lawyers! The main task of the chamber is not its competence but carrying out evaluations of legislation from the public's point of view. The country must have at least one moral-ethical organ that can stand on the same level with the president in the eyes of society." RC

RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN CRITICIZES GOVERNMENT ON SUPPLY OF MEDICINES
Human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin on 18 February warned Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov that the country faces serious problems with the provision of necessary medicines as a result of the reform to replace in-kind benefits with cash payments, ITAR-TASS reported. Lukin said that his office has studied the situations in Altai Krai and Perm Oblast and found that medicines are being sold at inflated prices -- in some cases nearly three times the ordinary price -- and that both regions face serious supply problems. In Altai, stores currently stock only 80 percent of the medicines for which benefits-recipients are eligible. Lukin said that the inflated prices are "a violation of the rights of socially unprotected citizens." RC

FOREIGN COMPANIES TO BE ALLOWED TO BID FOR OIL CONTRACTS IN 2006
Deputy Natural Resources Minister Anatolii Temkin said on 17 February that Russian-registered subsidiaries of foreign companies will be able to participate in license tenders to develop 40 eastern Siberian oil-and-gas deposits in 2006, Interfax reported. Earlier, Natural Resources Minister Yurii Trutnev announced that foreign companies will not be allowed to participate in any license tenders in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline, " 15 February 2005). The 40 licenses to be auctioned in 2006 have total reserves of 24 million tons of oil and 141 billion cubic meters of natural gas, Temkin said. He added that 39 other oil-and-gas licenses will be auctioned off in 2005, and said that the ministry expects to spend $20 billion on exploration by 2020. RC

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, NOT DEMOCRACY, IS RUSSIANS' TOP PRIORITY
Just 3 percent of Russians believe that strengthening democracy is the most important task facing the country today, according to a new poll by the ROMIR polling agency, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 February. Forty-five percent named economic development as the top priority, while 21 percent said reducing unemployment, 14 percent chose combating corruption, 11 percent named restraining the oligarchs, and another 11 percent said eliminating wage and pension arrears. Ten percent named ending the conflict in Chechnya. Respondents were allowed to choose more than one issue in their answers. RC

UPPER CHAMBER TO LOBBY FOR RESTORATION OF SPRING HOLIDAY
Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov told Interfax on 17 February that a working group is preparing an amendment to the Labor Code that would restore 2 May as a public holiday. At the end of 2004 the legislature passed amendments that expanded the New Year's holiday but cut back the traditional spring holiday at the beginning of May, provoking widespread discontent among Russians who use the spring holiday to plant their vegetable gardens. Mironov added, however, that it would most likely not be possible to restore the holiday before 2006. He said that some Federation Council members are also lobbying to restore 12 December (Constitution Day) and 7 November (the Day of Accord and Reconciliation, the former anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution) as holidays as well. RC

BLAGOVESHCHENSK POLICE-RAID VICTIMS DECLARE HUNGER STRIKE
Five of the victims of a 10-14 December police operation in Blagoveshchensk have begun a hunger strike to protest what they describe as an official cover-up of human rights abuses, Ekho Moskvy reported on 17 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005). Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseeva told "Novye izvestiya" on 18 February that she has a copy of the order to carry out the Blagoveshchensk operation, in which more than 1,000 people were allegedly illegally detained and some were allegedly beaten and raped, signed by Bashkortostan Interior Minister Rafail Divaev. Protestors have been calling for Divaev's resignation. Presidential Human Rights Council Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 18 February that "the events in Blagoveshchensk are not a random incident but are a confirmation of the current practices and character of the activity of the Interior Ministry organs in Bashkortostan." RC

KURSK OBLAST GOVERNOR NOMINATED FOR ANOTHER TERM...
President Putin on 18 February nominated Kursk Oblast Governor Aleksandr Mikhailov to remain in that post, RIA-Novosti. The Kursk Oblast legislature has two weeks to confirm or reject the nomination. Mikhailov becomes the fourth governor to be nominated since a political reform that eliminated the direct election of regional executive-branch heads. So far, all the candidates that Putin has nominated have been incumbents. RC

...AS GOVERNMENT DAILY SURVEYS PROSPECTS OF OTHER GOVERNORS
"Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 16 February praised the introduction of appointed governors, saying that it ensures "an ongoing dynamic of the political process in the regions, not a variable one from one election to the next." The daily surveyed the Southern, Siberian, and Volga federal districts and speculated on which governors might be replaced. It said that 66-year-old Kabardino-Balkaria President Valerii Kokov might retire soon for health reasons, although he continues to enjoy the Kremlin's confidence and there is reportedly no one in the republic with his stature. The daily said that Karachaevo-Cherkessia President Mustafa Batdyev might be replaced by North Ossetia Federal Security Service (FSB) head Sergei Demin and North Ossetia President Aleksandr Dzasokhov might be replaced by republican Prime Minister Alan Boradzov or one of the republic's Federation Council members. In the Volga region, the daily said, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev will likely be named to another term, while Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast Governor Gennadii Khodyrev could be replaced by oblast legislative Chairman Yevgenii Lyulin. The daily reported that Presidential Envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko has already submitted to the Kremlin two candidates for the post of Saratov Oblast governor: incumbent Dmitrii Ayatskov and Deputy Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (Unified Russia). RC

ELECTION SCANDAL IN RYAZAN CONTINUES TO GROW
Ryazan Oblast businesswoman Natalya Suchkova, who has sued oblast Governor Georgii Shpak for $1.7 million for allegedly reneging on promises he made in exchange for her funding his election campaign, served as Shpak's campaign manager during the first round of last year's gubernatorial election, "Izvestiya" reported on 18 February, citing Shpak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). Shpak told the daily that Suchkova was fired after the first round for allegedly having secret contacts with Shpak's main rival, State Duma Deputy Igor Morozov (independent). Morozov has appealed to a Ryazan court to overturn the results of the December election because Suchkova allegedly gave Shpak's campaign a sum several times greater than the maximum contribution allowed by law, Interfax reported on 17 February. Shpak told "Izvestiya" that Morozov has created the case in order "to attract attention to himself." "Rodnaya gazeta," No. 6, reported without sourcing that Shpak is expected to step down soon because of the scandal and will be offered an ambassadorship. The weekly said he will be replaced in Ryazan by Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeev. RC

PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN LEADER CONDEMNS ABDUCTIONS
Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov on 18 February confirmed that eight relatives of Chechen resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov were abducted in December and that a criminal investigation into the matter has been launched, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2005). Alkhanov said that he is personally categorically opposed to such abductions in any circumstances. He also charged that Maskhadov and radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev have been involved in abductions in the republic and he called on resistance fighters to "return to a normal, peaceful life." Alkhanov also said the conflict in Chechnya has been provoked by "those forces that were involved in the collapse of the Soviet Union" and condemned Arab mercenaries who are aiding the Chechen resistance. He said that federal security organs have effective control over the entire territory of the republic. RC

ARMENIAN STATE AGENCY REPORTS ECONOMIC EXPANSION IN 2004...
Armenian National Statistical Service chief Stepan Mnatsakanian reported on 16 February that Armenia's GDP grew by 10.1 percent in 2004, totaling $3.7 billion, Noyan Tapan reported. Industrial output increased by 2.1 percent, agricultural output expanded by 14.5 percent, capital construction by 17.2 percent, and exports grew by 4.3 percent to $715 million last year. RG

...AND NOTES SLIGHT POPULATION GROWTH
Mnatsakanian added on 16 February that the Armenian population grew slightly to a total of 3.21 million in 2004, Arminfo reported. Although the annual growth rate was minor, at only 3,500, the increase supports the government's claim that it has stemmed the country's significant population outflow over the last decade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 1999). RG

MAN CONVICTED IN AZERBAIJAN'S POSTELECTION PROTESTS FOUND DEAD IN PRISON
A 20-year-old demonstrator jailed for his participation in Azerbaijan's postelection protests in October 2003 was found dead in his cell on 17 February, Turan reported. The demonstrator, serving a three-year prison term, was among over 100 sentenced for their involvement in protesting the election of President Ilham Aliyev. Although the official cause of death was initially reportedly as "suffocation," a thorough investigation is under way, Turan reported. RG

OPINION POLL: NEARLY ONE-QUARTER OF AZERBAIJANIS SUPPORT INTRODUCING ISLAMIC LAWS
A public opinion poll found 23.2 percent of respondents support the introduction of Islamic laws in Azerbaijan, Turan reported. The poll, conducted from September to October 2004, surveyed a sample of 1,200 Azerbaijani citizens and was conducted by the ADAM Social Research Center. The survey found that although 93.2 percent of Azerbaijanis identified themselves as Muslims, under 20 percent worship regularly and only 13.5 percent recognize the authority of any Islamic religious authority. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said that they are "ill-disposed to people that adopted another religion." RG

EBRD TO EXTEND $1 MILLION LOAN TO LEADING AZERBAIJANI BANK
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is set to extend a $1 million loan to the Bank of Baku, "Baku Today" reported on 18 February. The 3.5-year loan seeks to support lending to small and medium-sized businesses in Azerbaijan by assisting the bank in developing foreign trade financial services. The Bank of Baku was established 11 years ago and is the seventh largest bank in Azerbaijan. The loan is also part of a broader EBRD strategy to help diversify the Azerbaijani economy, which is largely dependent on the energy sector. RG

IMF OFFICIAL CALLS ON AZERBAIJAN TO RAISE DOMESTIC ENERGY PRICES
International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation head Vitali Kramarenko called for Azerbaijan to introduce an annual increase in domestic energy prices, "Baku Today" reported. Kramarenko, speaking in Baku on 18 February, also completed a series of meetings with Azerbaijani government officials and reviewed the country's economic-reform program. RG

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT ENDORSES NEW CABINET...
In a 175-24 vote, the Georgian Parliament on 17 February approved the new cabinet formed by Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. In an address to the parliament, the premier outlined the government's program for the next five years, with a focus on job creation and economic growth. The newest members of the cabinet include the former Georgian ambassador to Russia, Valeri Chechelashvili, becoming finance minister; Supreme Court Chairman Kote Kemularia being named justice minister; and Giorgi Papuashvili as environment minister. The prime minister, a former finance minister, was named to the post on 9 February to replace the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005). RG

...AND APPROVES CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS
Following its endorsement of the new Georgian cabinet, the parliament voted on 17 February to adopt a set of constitutional amendments, Caucasus Press reported. The most significant of the constitutional amendments, formulated following their passage in a November 2003 national referendum, significantly reduces the size of the parliament, reducing the number of deputies from 235 to 150. The new rules, to take effect at the next parliamentary election in 2008, provide for the election of 100 deputies from party lists and 50 from single-seat constituencies. RG

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER ARRIVES IN TBILISI
Sergei Lavrov arrived in Tbilisi on 17 February following a meeting with Armenian officials in Yerevan, the Caucasus Press reported. The Russian foreign minister is to meet with Georgian Premier Zurab Noghaideli, Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, and President Mikheil Saakashvilli on 18 February to discuss a new treaty on bilateral relations and the unresolved status of Russian military bases in Georgia. The visit was plagued from the start as Georgian officials reacted strongly to Lavrov's decision not to visit a memorial commemorating the Georgian soldiers killed during conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Civil Georgia reported on 17 February. RG

COURT ORDER SUSPENDS KAZAKH OPPOSITION PAPER
Sharip Kurakbaev, editor in chief of the Kazakh opposition newspaper "Soz," told a news conference in Almaty on 17 February that a court order has suspended publication of the newspaper, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kurakbaev said that the newspaper's accounts and property have been frozen. Lawyer Sergei Utkin, who is representing "Soz," told journalists that that order, which comes after the National Security Committee won a 5-million-tenge ($38,500) libel judgment against "Soz" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February 2005), proves that the purpose of the suit was to shut down the newspaper. He said that the newspaper has minimal assets and can only raise money by continuing to publish. Tamara Kaleeva, head of the free-speech NGO Adil Soz, stressed that because Kazakh law does not limit damages in defamation lawsuits, it creates a convenient mechanism for silencing gadfly media. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT TO SUE OPPOSITION NEWSPAPER
In a nationally televised address on 17 February, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev said that he intends to file a defamation suit against the opposition newspaper "MSN," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The president called the newspaper's recent publication of materials about property belonging to him and his family inaccurate and defamatory; he stressed that "the lawsuit will be withdrawn only if the newspaper publishes a proper denial of the allegations smearing me and my family," Kyrgyz Television 1 reported. Compounding the newspaper's problems, the heads of state-owned telecom, gas, and power companies held a press conference on 17 February to announce that they also intend to file suit against "MSN" for articles claiming that the companies are controlled by members of the president's family, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The embattled newspaper already faces a defamation suit filed by rival newspaper "Vechernii Bishkek" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2005). DK

U.S. ENVOY: AWACS DEPLOYMENT TO KYRGYZSTAN ISSUE NOT RAISED
U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Stephen Young told a news conference in Osh on 17 February that the question of deploying AWACS surveillance aircraft at the U.S. air base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan "was never raised," Fergana.ru reported. The ambassador's comment comes only days after Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov stated that Kyrgyzstan decided against the deployment of AWACS at Manas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). In his other remarks, Young underscored the extent of U.S.-Kyrgyz cooperation and stressed that there is no competition between the United States and Russia in Central Asia. He said, "We help Kyrgyzstan to combat terrorism and drug trafficking. We cooperate with the Defense Ministry, Emergency Situations Ministry, border service, and other enforcement agencies to strengthen security in Kyrgyzstan." Young added, "It seems to me that there is no competition between Russia and the United States in Kyrgyzstan, or in all of Central Asia; our interests in the region are entirely compatible." DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT TO MISS BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION FOR OPERATION...
Saparmurat Niyazov will miss a nationwide celebration of his birthday on 19 February as result of preparations for an eye operation to take place on 22 February, agencies reported on 17 February. In televised remarks, the president said that the German doctors who will perform the operation have ordered him to begin observing a "special schedule" on 19 February, Interfax reported. As he readied himself for the operation, Niyazov joked, "I can't see some of you.... After the operation, my vision will be sharper. But don't think that I don't see at all. I definitely see." DK

...AND ALSO PLANS WINTER SPORTS COMPLEX
President Niyazov hopes to construct a large winter-sports complex in the desert, Interfax reported on 17 February, citing the president's press service. Promising that "the capital of sunny Turkmenistan will become a center for winter sports," Niyazov said that he has asked French construction firm Bouygues to develop plans for the project. The remarks came as Niyazov and Bouygues CEO Martin Bouygues signed four contracts worth $230 million in Ashgabat on 17 February for the firm to construct a number of new buildings in the Turkmen capital, turkmenistan.ru reported. The winter-sports complex will be a separate project. DK

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT REPRIMANDS PREMIER FOR POTASH EXPORTS
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 17 February reprimanded Prime Minister Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski, Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Bambiza, and a number of other government officials for their failure to remove intermediaries in exports of Belarusian potash fertilizer, Belarusian Television reported. Some 95 percent of Belarus's potash fertilizer has been exported since 1993 through the International Potash Company based in Moscow. Lukashenka estimated that Belarus loses some $30 million annually by using services of the Moscow intermediary. Potash fertilizer is Belarus's major export commodity; some 9 percent of the world's confirmed potash deposits are located in Belarus, near the city of Salihorsk, south of Minsk. According to Lukashenka, the state-run Belkaliy giant, which mines potash near Salihorsk, brings some $800 million annually in foreign currency to the state budget. JM

UKRAINE DECIDES AGAINST APPLYING FOR NATO MEMBERSHIP IN FEBRUARY
Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko said on Channel 5 on 18 February that Kyiv is not going to submit an application during the NATO summit in Brussels on 22 February for Ukraine's entry into the alliance. "The question has not reached this level," Hrytsenko said, adding that he believes Ukraine's armed forces may meet NATO standards in the next two to three years. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is expected to meet with the heads of state and government of NATO member countries during the summit in Brussels, within the framework of a Ukraine-NATO Commission session. JM

UKRAINE TO TEMPORARILY EASE VISA POLICY FOR EUROPEANS
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk pledged in Kyiv on 17 February to ease Ukraine's visa regime with regard to many European countries ahead of the Eurovision 2005 song contest in the Ukrainian capital in May, Interfax reported. "The new visa policy should comply with European legislation and standards existing in this sphere," Tarasyuk said, adding that the simplified visa regime will possibly be maintained for the entire summer period. Tarasyuk was speaking at a news conference jointly with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Ferrero-Waldner assured Ukrainians that Brussels' goal is to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. She promised that greater rapprochement in Ukraine-EU relations will be possible after all the provisions of a recently updated Ukraine-EU Action Plan have been fulfilled. The plan is to be approved on 21 February, while President Yushchenko is expected to address the European Parliament on 23 February. JM

UKRAINIAN MINISTER VOWS TO KEEP INTERIOR TROOPS OUT OF POLITICS
Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko on 18 February introduced the new commander of the ministry's Interior Troops, Oleksandr Kykhtenko, to his subordinates, Interfax reported. "Neither the president nor the [Interior] Minister will ever set you political tasks," Lutsenko promised during the ceremony. Kykhtenko's predecessor, General Serhiy Popkov, was reportedly on the verge of bringing special-police troops to Kyiv in late December to break up the Orange Revolution. Kykhtenko said he is working on a project to reform the Interior Troops and rename them into Republican Guards of Ukraine. JM

BOSNIAN SERB LEADER WARNS AGAINST CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES...
Borislav Paravac, who is the Bosnian Serb member and current chairman of the Bosnian Presidency, told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in a telephone interview on 18 February that he considers "unacceptable" any changes to Bosnia-Herzegovina's constitution that would weaken the position of the two entities in order to strengthen the central government. Paravac, who belongs to the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), added that his party supports the ministers in the central government from the smaller Bosnian Serb Party of Democratic Progress, who recently resigned their government posts to protest some 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). It is widely expected that those ministers, including Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic, will nonetheless soon withdraw their resignations, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 17 February. In late 1995, then President Biljana Plavsic and other Bosnian Serb leaders persuaded their supporters to accept the Dayton peace agreement -- which includes the constitution -- on the grounds that it confirms the sovereignty of the Republika Srpska. PM

...AS THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT PREPARES TO RECOMMEND THEM
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament agreed on a resolution in Strasbourg on 17 February calling for serious modifications in Bosnia-Herzegovina's constitution, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The resolution notes that some aspects of the constitution included in the Dayton agreement make "normal functioning" of the Bosnian state impossible and constitute a barrier to its integration into European institutions. The committee argued that the continuation of the two entities is a source of regional instability. The resolution now goes to the full parliament, which is expected to debate it in March before voting on it. PM

ECONOMIC CONSIDERATIONS AT CENTER STAGE FOR BOSNIAN DIPLOMACY
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Sarajevo on 16 February that his country and Bosnia-Herzegovina should try to significantly boost their economic cooperation, dpa reported. As a first step, he and Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic signed an agreement on avoiding double taxation that is expected to boost Turkish investment and promote cooperation among individual businesses. The Turkish delegation included more than 100 businessmen interested in investing in Bosnia, some of whom urged their hosts to further reduce red tape. Erdogan pledged to support Bosnia in its moves toward Euro-Atlantic integration. On 17 February, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski told reporters in Sarajevo that their two countries "have the same strategic goal, membership in the European Union and NATO," adding that "we used to live in one country. I hope that in the future we will again live in one community called the European Union," Hina reported. Crvenkovski also noted, however, that the two countries should work to improve their economic ties. PM

HAGUE TRIBUNAL ENTERS 'NOT GUILTY' PLEA FOR BOSNIAN SERB
Savo Todovic, who is the first Bosnian Serb war crimes indictee to go to The Hague voluntarily from the Republika Srpska, declined on 17 February to enter a plea regarding the 18 separate charges against him, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 25 January 2005). The judge, whose name was not mentioned in reports, then entered a plea of "not guilty" for him, the tribunal having previously given Todovic an extra 30 days to formulate his plea. The charges against Todovic say that he was in charge of selecting detainees for killings, beatings, interrogations, and solitary confinement at the Foca prison camp from April 1992 to August 1993. PM

SERBIA ARRESTS SIX WAR CRIMES INDICTEES FOR DOMESTIC TRIAL
Serbian special police have arrested six unnamed people indicted by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal for war crimes, the Interior Ministry said in a statement on 17 February, Reuters reported. The ministry provided no details regarding the indictees or their alleged crimes. Del Ponte gave the indictments to Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic during her visit to Belgrade in October 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 September, and 1, 4, and 5 October 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 April 2004). They are the first cases that the Hague-based tribunal has passed to the Serbian war crimes court for trial in Serbia. PM

FORMER MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT SAYS GREECE CANNOT THWART EU ACCESSION
Former Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov, who led the country to independence in 1991, has told Deutsche Welle's Macedonian Service that he does believe that Greece can thwart Macedonia's bid for EU membership, MIA news agency reported on 16 February. "I believe that it is unrealistic for Greece to expect that it can stop our further rapprochement with the EU, because the EU is a complex organization," Gligorov said. He argued that the new EU constitution -- once ratified by its member states -- gives the union greater flexibility in reaching decisions. Gligorov reacted to recent reports that Greece might attempt to block Macedonia's bid for EU membership because of the ongoing dispute over the name of Macedonia. Under Greek pressure, Macedonia is recognized by the UN as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) rather than under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 June 2003 and 12 November 2004). UB

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT HINTS AT EARLY ELECTIONS
President Traian Basescu said on Antena 1 TV on 16 February that he still considers early elections an option, "Evenimentul zilei" and "Ziua" reported. Basescu said early elections could be held in May or June, or by the end of this year at the latest. He said he does not share the view that early elections could result in political instability, adding that that he respects the opinion of Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, who has said that elections should not take place before 1 January 2007, when Romania is expected to join the EU. Basescu argued that there are signs that the current coalition of the National Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance (Justice and Truth alliance), the Humanist Party (PUR) and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania, is facing difficulties, because one of the parties has "more pretensions than potential." Media have interpreted this remark as a clear attack on the PUR (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 16 February 2005). UB

POLL GIVES RULING MOLDOVAN COMMUNISTS LEAD...
According to an opinion poll carried out by two polling agencies on behalf of the Institute for Public Policies, the governing Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) would win the parliamentary elections with almost 62 percent of the vote (accounting for 66 of the 101 parliamentary seats) if they were held today, reporter.md and other Moldovan news agencies reported. The opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) would receive just under 21 percent of the vote (22 seats), while the opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) would win about 12 percent (13 seats). Other parties such as the Social Democratic Party (PSDM) (4 percent) would not overcome the 6 percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2005). The same poll says that voters are most confident in President Vladimir Voronin, followed by Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev, BMD leader Serafim Urechean, parliamentary speaker Eugenia Ostapciuc, and BMD parliamentary group leader Dumitru Braghis. UB

...WHICH OPPOSITION DOUBTS
Representatives of the opposition BMD and the PPCD have expressed doubts over the accuracy of the opinion poll, the BBC's Romanian Service reported. BMD spokesman Victor Osipov called the results "outdated," claiming the poll was carried out a month ago. PPCD spokesman Mihai Coretchi said the results do not "correspond at all with reality." Coretchi further claimed that the poll was carried out to convince voters that the PCM will be the clear winner of the 6 March parliamentary elections. UB

MOLDOVAN NGO ALLIANCE REPORTS IRREGULARITIES AHEAD OF GENERAL ELECTIONS
The Coalition 2005 -- an alliance of 152 NGOs founded to ensure free and fair elections in Moldova -- presented on 17 February its latest report on the election campaign, saying that the coalition's monitors have registered a number of shortcomings and irregularities, Infotag reported. The irregularities include the presence and interference of police officers in campaign meetings as well as the use of administrative resources by the governing PCM. A number of important decisions by the Central Election Commission have not come into force, as the authorities have yet to publish them in the state gazette (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 14, and 15 February 2005). UB

PRESIDENTIAL DECREES MAKE WAVES IN UKRAINE
New Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who was inaugurated on 23 January, has already issued a number of decrees that raised eyebrows not only among Ukrainian political observers but also among some of his political supporters and allies from the Orange Revolution.

In particular, both the appointment of regional governors and the creation of the Presidential Secretariat seem to open sources of potential controversies and/or conflicts within Ukraine's new governing elite. Simultaneously, these initial presidential moves also offer insight into what appears to be the beginning of a struggle for political influence within Yushchenko's closest entourage.

To start with, the public appointment of 24 oblast administration heads by Yushchenko in the Verkhovna Rada on 4 February, which took place shortly after the appointment of a new Cabinet of Ministers led by Yuliya Tymoshenko, appears to be at variance with the Ukrainian Constitution. As indicated to journalists by lawmaker Viktor Musiyaka from the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine bloc, Article 118 of the constitution stipulates that regional governors be appointed following nomination by the Cabinet of Ministers. But in fact, the newly appointed ministers had not even had time to congratulate each other on their new jobs before they heard the names of new governors recited by Tymoshenko from the parliamentary rostrum and before Yushchenko signed a string of relevant appointment decrees.

In theory, a group of 45 lawmakers is sufficient for submitting a petition to the Constitutional Court to challenge the appointments of governors. According to Musiyaka, the Constitutional Court cannot but cancel Yushchenko's regional appointments -- all of Ukraine witnessed in a live television relay of the government's inauguration as the new president was publicly violating the basic law. However, judging by the overwhelming support the new prime minister and the new government's program obtained in the Verkhovna Rada -- 373 and 357 votes, respectively -- such a legal challenge by lawmakers is not very likely at present.

But the situation may turn very nasty for Yushchenko if some of the dismissed governors take court action demanding that they be reinstated in their governorships and paid financial compensation for the period they were unlawfully pushed out of their posts and deprived of their salaries. According to Musiyaka, irrespective of whether former governors will protest or not, Yushchenko urgently needs to cancel his 4 February decrees on governors and issue new ones, following an appropriate nomination procedure by the Cabinet of Ministers.

Why has Yushchenko made such a major legal blunder at the very start of his presidential career? Most likely, it happened because he was heavily preoccupied with satisfying the appetites of his political allies for government jobs and did not have enough time to ponder the procedural side of appointments. Although it is not exactly known who wanted what in the new government, the televised ceremony of appointments in the Verkhovna Rada on 4 February clearly testified to a harsh and up-to-the-last minute fight of Yushchenko's political adherents for the distribution of government jobs. For example, it could be seen that Yushchenko decided on the appointment of Roman Bezsmertnyy as deputy prime minister and Vitaliy Oluyko as Khmelnytskyy Oblast governor at the very last moment, literally minutes before signing the relevant decrees, much to the visible chagrin of Prime Minister Tymoshenko, who had announced that these posts would remain vacant for some time.

The respected Kyiv-based independent weekly "Zerkalo nedeli" has commented that only some 20 percent of new governors can be categorized as Yushchenko's "relatively good" choices, while the other regional appointments are either "weak" or have a "not fully positive character." This should not be seen as a big surprise or overstatement, given that Yushchenko had hardly spoken to any of the 24 governors prior to their nomination or briefed them on their duties in the regions they are to govern. Most likely, Yushchenko made the regional appointments leaning solely on consultations with top political players from his election coalition.

The appointment of Vitaliy Oluyko to the post of Khmelnytskyy governor is a graphic example of what problems Yushchenko may expect from the regions in the future. The appointment of Oluyko provoked a vehement reaction from raion leaders of the Yushchenko election campaign in Khmelnytskyy Oblast, who staged anti-Yushchenko pickets in Khmelnytskyy and Kyiv on 9 February, claiming that Yushchenko made a terrible mistake in awarding the man who worked for his rival, Viktor Yanukovych, during the campaign. The next day Oluyko tendered his resignation and the resignation has reportedly been accepted by Yushchenko. Why did Yushchenko decide on Oluyko at all? Because Oluyko was reportedly recommended by parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, whose People's Agrarian Party has joined a pro-Yushchenko parliamentary coalition and been given a "quota" of government jobs in return.

Another disturbing decree by Yushchenko is that on the creation of the Presidential Secretariat to replace the presidential administration created by former President Leonid Kuchma in 1996. Under the leadership of Viktor Medvedchuk, the presidential administration turned into the chief body of executive power in Ukraine, relegating the Cabinet of Ministers to a minor role. Yushchenko has pledged to strengthen the Cabinet of Ministers and turn the presidential administration into a consultative body dealing primarily with technical and bureaucratic issues of the president's activities. But the decree on the Presidential Secretariat, which was purportedly signed by Yushchenko on 27 January but made public only on 16 February, explicitly gives this body the right "to participate in working out drafts of presidential acts during all stages in the Cabinet of Ministers, the National Security and Defense Council, and other organs of state power" as well as "to ensure and control their implementation."

Some have already protested that the Presidential Secretariat is poised to become Ukraine's "second Cabinet of Ministers." The bureaucratic structure of the Presidential Secretariat, Ukrainian observers note, practically reflects the Kuchma-era presidential administration, even if the secretariat's departments and sections now bear different names. As an innovation, the current Presidential Secretariat includes a mysterious unit called the Presidential Cabinet (kabinet prezydenta) -- whose prerogatives are to be determined in a separate decree -- in addition to the no-less puzzling Presidential Office (kantselariya prezydenta).

Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 16 February that the Presidential Secretariat, led by State Secretary Oleksandr Zinchenko, "fully duplicates" the structure of the Cabinet of Ministers chaired by Tymoshenko and is set to aspire to performing some Cabinet of Ministers functions as well. Tomenko also warned that the State Security and Defense Council (RNBOU), constitutionally headed by Yushchenko but on a daily basis managed by its Secretary Petro Poroshenko, may emerge as yet another center of executive decisions under the Yushchenko presidency, in addition to the Presidential Secretariat, the Cabinet of Ministers, and Yushchenko himself.

Tomenko said he has heard rumors that the post of RNBOU secretary is to be renamed into that of RNBOU deputy head -- that is, the president's deputy in the RNBOU -- in a forthcoming presidential decree on RNBOU new prerogatives. "If everything happens according to such a scenario, we will have one more prime minister, Zinchenko, and a vice president, Poroshenko!" Tomenko predicted. Tomenko is not the only one in Ukraine who is concerned that Yushchenko now may not be so eager to meet the election pledge of running a transparent government, in which the functions and prerogatives of its constituents are clearly defined and not duplicated or overlapped by other bodies. Judging by all appearances, Orange Revolution combatants and brothers-in-arms have already entered a postrevolution stage of internecine warfare in the corridors of power.

U.S. BUDGET REQUEST CALLS FOR MORE THAN $2 BILLION FOR AFGHANISTAN
While outlining the 2005 supplemental budget request before the U.S. Senate's Appropriation Committee on 17 February, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mentioned that $2.2 billion has been requested for Afghanistan (for the transcript of the speech, see http://www.state.gov). As part of the $5.6 billion designated for international affairs projects in the supplemental budget, which Rice described as essential and urgent, Afghanistan would receive the largest share, if the budget is approved by the Senate as presented. Rice said $265 million would be used toward funding "democracy and governance programs"; $769 million for rehabilitation and reconstruction projects "to improve the lives of Afghan citizens"; $509 million for counternarcotics efforts; $233 million to "replenish resources" that were set aside for counternarcotics programs but reallocated for other uses; $400 million for revamping the Afghan police force; and $60 million to compensate for increased security costs at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The funds requested by Rice are separate from the $82 billion that Bush has already requested from Congress to pay for military and intelligence operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere as part of the war on terrorism. AT

UNITED KINGDOM APPOINTS SPECIAL COMMISSION ON COUNTERNARCOTICS FOR AFGHANISTAN
During his visit to Kabul on 16 February, U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that his government has nominated a new counternarcotics commission to lead the war against opium-poppy cultivation with the cooperation of the Afghan government, Pajhwak News Agency reported on 17 February. British Lieutenant General John McColl, who led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2001-02, is to lead the commission. The United Kingdom is leading the international effort to stem Afghanistan's drug trade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 November 2005). AT

FARMERS IN EASTERN PROVINCE ABANDON POPPIES FOR FISH
Some farmers in Nangarhar Province who have stopped cultivating opium poppies are to try their hands at fish farming, Pajhwak reported on 17 February. Relief International, an international nongovernmental organization, is planning to build fish farms in Nangarhar. A local farmer said: "I was sowing poppy to earn a lot of money. When I can earn legal money by selling fish, there is no need to sow poppy." Alternative subsistence programs are needed to stem Afghan farmers increasing dependence on opium-poppy cultivation. However, success largely depends on whether alternatives such as fish farming will generate enough income to persuade farmers to stop growing opium poppies. AT

AFGHAN PRESIDENT APPOINTS NEW GOVERNOR
President Hamid Karzai on 17 February appointed Monshi Abdul Majid as governor of the northeastern Badakhshan Province, Radio Afghanistan reported. Karzai also appointed Zarar Ahmad Moqbel as deputy interior minister for security affairs. AT

TEHRAN, MOSCOW ANNOUNCE DATE FOR NUCLEAR-FUEL-TRANSFER AGREEMENT
An Iranian Atomic Energy Organization official identified only as Mr. Saburi said on 17 February that an agreement on the return of spent nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing will be signed on 26 February, Iranian state radio reported. Russian Atomic Energy Agency head Aleksandr Rumyantsev is scheduled to visit Iran in late February. The fate of fuel used in the Bushehr reactor that originated in Moscow has been a bone of contention for some time, and disagreements over financial issues have delayed signing of the agreement. This is the first time a specific date has been mentioned. One part of the agreement, Saburi said, touches on when the fresh fuel will be sent to Iran. He said this will occur about three months after the signing. Saburi said the fuel will be flown to Iran. BS

IRANIAN SECURITY OFFICIAL VISITS RUSSIA
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani arrived in Moscow on the evening of 16 February, state television reported. Rohani said the two sides will discuss regional issues, as well as nuclear matters. He said they will discuss the completion of the nuclear power plant in Bushehr. Rohani is scheduled to spend two days in Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. BS

IRAN, SYRIA SIGN COOPERATION DOCUMENTS
At a 17 February ceremony in Tehran, Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Utri and Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Aref-Yazdi witnessed the signing of four documents, state radio reported. One was an agreement on customs issues, and the others were memorandums of understanding relating to oil, research, and technology. Earlier that day, al-Utri met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, IRNA reported. Khatami remarked on the two countries' common stance on many issues. Khatami said that Iran supports the Lebanese people's resistance because it is against occupation. Khatami added that certain countries have a double standard on terrorism, and he said the "Zionist regime" practices state terrorism. Those who try to liberate their land are called terrorists, he said, but it is Israel that commits terrorist acts. Khatami told al-Utri that Iran respects Syria's position at, in IRNA's words, "the forefront of the struggle against the Zionist regime." BS

PROSPECTIVE IRANIAN PILGRIMS TO IRAQ FACE RESTRICTIONS
Ilam Province police chief Brigadier-General Jafar Darabi said on 17 February that Iraqi officials have taken steps to reduce pilgrims' access to holy Shi'a sites, Baztab website reported. Tasua and Ashura -- the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his followers in Karbala 1,400 years ago -- take place on 19 and 20 February. Darabi said Iranian and Iraqi officials are discussing this issue, and he urged Iranians to respect these restrictions. Darabi warned of the dangers of mine fields left over from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, as well as general insecurity in Iraq. Ilam Province's deputy-governor general for security affairs, Ali-Asqar Jamshid-Nejad, warned that people who enter Iraq illegally will be arrested and imprisoned for up to six months. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on 15 February that Iranians should visit Iraq only after securing visas, IRNA reported. BS

IRAQI ELECTION COMMISSION CERTIFIES ELECTION RESULTS
The Iraqi Election Commission certified national election results at a 17 February press briefing broadcast live on Al-Sharqiyah television. The results for the transitional National Assembly seats are as follows: the Shi'ite led United Iraqi Alliance, 140 seats; the Kurdistan Coalition list, 75 seats; interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi list, 40 seats; interim President Ghazi al-Yawir's Iraqiyun list, five seats; the Iraqi Turkoman Front, three seats; Fathallah Ghazi Isma'il's Independent National Elites and Cadres, three seats; Ala Humud Salih al-Ta'mah's Islamic Action Organization in Iraq-Central Command, two seats; Kurdistan Islamic Group in Iraq, two seats; People's Union [Communist Party], two seats; Mish'an al-Juburi's Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc, one seat; Samir Shakir al-Sumaydi'i's National Democratic Alliance, one seat; and the Al-Rafidayn list (Chaldo-Assyrian), one seat. In the Kurdistan parliamentary election, the Kurdistan Democratic list won 104 seats; the Kurdistan Islamic Group won six seats; and the Zahmatkeshani Kurdistan Party won one seat. KR

SUICIDE BOMBER STRIKES BAGHDAD MOSQUE
A suicide bomber strapped with explosives blew himself up inside a Shi'ite mosque in the Al-Dura area of Baghdad on 18 February as worshippers marked the religious ceremony of Ashura, international media reported. Initial reports indicated at least 13 dead and 22 wounded, Reuters reported. A second mosque was attacked in western Baghdad, leaving at least one dead and four wounded. Worshippers in the capital attacked and killed a suspected suicide bomber during a religious ceremony marking Ashura on 16 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005). One hundred and seventy-one people were killed in 12 bombings on 2 March 2004 during Ashura festivities. Meanwhile, Al-Diyar television reported on 17 February that Al-Muthanna police arrested four Iranians who tried to cross the Saudi-Iraqi border the same day. The men were reportedly carrying weapons and explosives when they were arrested. They initially told police that they came to Iraq to visit the holy shrines, according to Al-Diyar. In Al-Najaf, Governor Adnan al-Zarfi announced the arrest of a militant from the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 17 February. Ali Tawfiq Jasim reportedly confessed to involvement in attacks on polling centers in the Babil governorate and an assassination attempt on its governor. KR

U.S. EMBASSY IN ANKARA DENIES MILITARY BUILDUP IN NORTHERN IRAQ AIMED AT TURKEY
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara (http://ankara.usembassy.gov) released a statement on 17 February denying a report in Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper earlier this week and subsequently reported in the Turkish press that claimed U.S. forces are fortifying their positions in northern Iraq in preparation for a showdown with the Turkish military. Turkish and Kurdish leaders have engaged in brinkmanship in recent months over the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which has a large Turkoman population. Kurds claim majority status in Kirkuk and have called for Kurds displaced from the city under the Hussein regime to be repatriated, a call that has prompted Turkey at times to threaten military intervention. "Any suggestion that any U.S. military activity in northern Iraq is directed against Turkey, a longstanding ally and NATO partner, is false," the embassy statement said. "The mission of U.S. troops in northern Iraq is to help Iraq defeat the insurgency and establish stability.... Speculation over Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq is irresponsible." KR

IRAQI INTERIM GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCES TWO-DAY WEEKEND
The Iraqi interim government announced on 17 February that the cabinet has endorsed the establishment of a two-day weekend, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. The current weekend is Friday only; the new weekend will add Saturday as a day off. In order to accommodate the new schedule, working hours will be increased in government institutions and ministries from six to seven hours per day. KR

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