FOREIGN MINISTRY SLAMS U.S. HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT AS 'POLITICALLY BIASED'
The Foreign Ministry's press department told Interfax on 2 March that the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights is "politically biased" and "in no way can be described as objective." The report, according to the ministry, is "mainly based on arbitrary interpretations of the facts and sometimes even rumors." The ministry also noted that "the ambiguous 'track record' of the United States itself, which arouses serious concern among international human rights organizations, has been ignored." In the report, the list of countries where the problem of human rights is most urgent was expanded this year to include Russia. Other countries in that category are North Korea, China, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Belarus. The report noted that in contrast to a number of other countries that increased direct public control over government, the Russian authorities further strengthened the power of the executive branch and imposed greater restrictions on the media. JAC
REGIONAL JOURNALISTS FACING MASSIVE LAYOFFS
Russian Union of Journalists Secretary-General Igor Yakovenko told Ekho Moskvy on 2 March that about 20,000 journalists may be dismissed over the next few months by regional branches of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK). According to Yakovenko, "in virtually every region of the Russian Federation, all the GTRKs have essentially, effectively been abolished" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). He added that VGTRK's activities "are causing a surge of interest in public television and radio in the regions, and already several governors have declared their readiness to create public television and radio companies." JAC
INCOME GAP KEEPS GROWING...
According to the latest data, the richest 10 percent of the population earned 14.8 times more than the poorest 10 percent last year, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 2 March. By comparison, in 2000 the gap was 13.9 times, and in 2003 it was 14.3. The daily also reported that in January total real-cash income dropped by 9.6 percent, compared with January 2004, while expenditures slowly increased. According to specialists at the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), Russian citizens in 2004 started actively spending the money they had accumulated in recent years. However, prices have also been rising for essential goods and services. Housing and public-utilities costs rose 23.5 percent last year, pork products by 40 percent, and gasoline on average by 40 percent. The daily concludes that all Russians must now spend more for housing, food, and transportation. JAC
...AS EXPERT NOTES THAT ARMY REPRESENTS POOREST STRATA OF SOCIETY
Colonel Leonid Peven, head of the Armed Forces Sociology Center, told reporters in Moscow on 2 March that 34 percent of commissioned and warrant officers in the Russian armed forces are living below the poverty line, Interfax reported. Part of the reason for the low incomes is that officers' spouses cannot find work in remote garrisons. Peven also noted that village residents account for 80 percent of the conscripts in the armed forces and, therefore, "the Russian Army represents the poorest strata of society." JAC
DUMA GIVES INITIAL NOD TO CURBS ON DEFERMENTS
The State Duma voted on 2 March to approve in its first reading a bill that would abolish draft deferments for police officers, firefighters, and prison and antinarcotics officers who began serving in these agencies after 1 January 2005, Russian news agencies reported. The vote was 380 in favor, according to Interfax. Valerii Smirnov, chief of the organization and mobilization department of the General Staff, said that passage of the bill should increase the number of recruits by 20,000 a year, ITAR-TASS reported. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has said he advocates drastic reductions in draft deferments, except for health-related ones (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). JAC
YABLOKO LEADER FAILS TO GIVE KASYANOV CANDIDACY ENTHUSIASTIC RECEPTION
Yabloko leader Grigoriii Yavlinskii told reporters in Moscow on 2 March that he does not believe former Prime Minister Mikhail Yavlinskii could assume the leadership of Russia's democratic forces or contribute to their unification, Russian news agencies reported. "Kasyanov represents the group that carried out the criminal privatization policy of the mid-1990s. He also represents those forces that organized the financial pyramid schemes and laid the foundation for the emergence of an authoritarian regime," he said. According to RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 26 February, when Kasyanov was named head of the federal Anticorruption Commission, Yavlinskii said the "appointment was like naming a vampire to oversee a blood bank." According to RIA-Novosti, Yavlinskii repudiated an earlier statement by Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) Political Council Secretary Boris Nadezhdin that Yabloko and SPS have reached an agreement to unite and are now negotiating about the process of unification. "This is news to me," Yavlinskii said. Galina Khovanskaya, deputy Yabloko leader and State Duma deputy, said that unlike SPS, Yabloko "is not indifferent to the tears of pensioners and children." JAC
TWO MORE GOVERNORS CONFIRMED
The Saratov Oblast legislature on 3 March confirmed Pavel Ipatov as governor of the oblast, replacing Dmitrii Ayatskov, RIA-Novosti reported. Ipatov previously served as director of the Balkovo nuclear power plant and he is a member of the Unified Russia party. Ipatov told the news agency that his immediate priorities are the consolidation of society and combating poverty. Ayatskov's term expires on 2 April. The legislature of the Evenk Autonomous Okrug on 3 March unanimously voted to confirm President Putin's nomination of okrug Governor Boris Zolotarev for another term, RBK reported. Zolotarev's term was to expire in April 2006, but he asked Putin to confirm him under the new system for selecting regional governors. On 17 April, residents of Evenk, the Taimyr Autonomous Okrug, and Krasnoyarsk Krai will hold referendums on the possible unification of the three territories. If the referendum is approved, Zolotarev's term will end on 1 January 2007. RC
DESCENDENTS OF THE FAMOUS TAKE LOTTERY COMPANY TO COURT
The great-grandson of 19th-century writer Fyodor Dostoevsky has filed a lawsuit against the Chestnaya Igra lottery company for the use of the writer's portrait on lottery tickets, "Izvestiya" reported on 3 March. The daily reported that the great-great-granddaughter of 19th-century mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky is also expected to join the lawsuit. The plaintiffs believe that the use of the portraits is a defamation of their ancestors and they are seeking 200,000 rubles ($6,670) in damages. A spokeswoman for the lottery company defended the use of the portraits, telling the daily: "Participants in the lottery get the chance to become familiar with the lives of their great compatriots from the information on the reverse side of the tickets." She said that Dostoevsky's great-grandson's action was drawing "unnecessary attention" to the writer's well-documented addiction to gambling. RC
ULYANOVSK LEADER WANTS LENINS TO COME HOME
"Izvestiya" reported on 3 March that Ulyanovsk Oblast Governor Sergei Morozov has appealed to his fellow governors to donate all their unwanted statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin to his oblast for an open-air museum. Lenin was born in Ulyanovsk, which was then called Simbirsk, in 1870. Morozov said he came up with the idea for the museum when he was mayor of Dmitrovgrad. He said a local plant discovered a monument of Bolshevik activist Mikhail Kalinin in a basement, and workers pulled it out, decorated it with flowers and a bench, and created a little park around it. Morozov hopes the Lenin statues could launch a "cultural revolution" in Ulyanovsk. The reaction of Morozov's regional colleagues so far has been mixed. Chavashia President Nikolai Fedorov said he would part with his republic's Lenins with pleasure. However, in Kaliningrad, the chief specialist for the oblast administration for the preservation of monuments, Leonid Melnikov, said no one plans to send statues to Ulyanovsk. According to the daily, the largest Lenin is located in Dubna in Moscow Oblast. It is 25 meters high and weighs 540 tons. JAC
BESLAN VICTIMS' RELATIVES APPEAL TO PUTIN
Relatives of the schoolchildren and parents killed during the hostage taking last September at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, have written to President Putin informing him that they have lost all confidence in the ongoing criminal investigation of the incident and in the independent investigation being conducted by a Russian parliamentary commission, kavkazweb.net reported on 3 March. The signatories to the appeal request that Putin "establish the truth" about the circumstances preceding and surrounding the attack. Specifically, they demand the immediate dismissal of North Ossetian prosecutor Aleksandr Bigulov, alleging that his tolerance of corruption and incompetence within the republic's Interior Ministry made it possible for the hostage takers to reach Beslan without being intercepted. Bigulov was first appointed prosecutor in 1998 but was dismissed two years later for corruption; it is not clear why he was reappointed to the same post in 2002. Also on 3 March, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Federation Council Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Torshin, who heads the parliamentary commission for Beslan, as denying that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov volunteered to come to Beslan to negotiate with the hostage takers. Maskhadov's envoy, Akhmed Zakaev, said on 2 September that Maskhadov was ready to do so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2004). LF
ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADER AGAIN CALLS FOR REFERENDUM OF CONFIDENCE IN PRESIDENT
Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 2 March, Stepan Demirchian, head of the Artarutiun opposition bloc, again argued that the ongoing political crisis in Armenia can be resolved only by holding a nationwide referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian, the legitimacy of whose election in February-March 2003 Demirchian has never acknowledged, according to Mediamax and Arminfo, as cited by Groong. Demirchian also said that while Artarutiun supports "strategic partnership with Russia," the bloc opposes the equity-for-debt agreement signed with Moscow in late 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November and 5 December 2002). He expressed gratitude for the support provided by the United States for democratization and the development of a market economy in Armenia. LF
JOURNALIST GUNNED DOWN IN AZERBAIJAN
Elmar Huseinov, 39, editor of the opposition journal "Monitor," was shot dead in the stairwell of his apartment building as he returned home on the evening of 2 March, independent Azerbaijani media reported the following day. The unknown killer escaped. The pro-government press did not report the killing, according to Turan. "Monitor" has contested numerous lawsuits in recent years in connection with its hard-hitting criticism of corruption within the Azerbaijani leadership. Addressing a session of the National Security Council on 3 March, President Ilham Aliyev condemned the killing as an attempt to tarnish Azerbaijan's image in the run-up to parliamentary elections this fall, and he called for police to find the killer as soon as possible, Turan reported. LF
GEORGIA APPEALS TO EU OVER BORDER SECURITY
Speaking on 2 March in Brussels following talks with EU officials, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili called on the EU to consider deploying monitors on Georgia's borders with Russia to replace the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors who are to be withdrawn from the region because Russia blocked the extension of their mandate, Caucasus Press and Reuters reported. Zourabichvili said Moscow is threatening to launch preemptive strikes into Georgian territory, and she warned that any such military intervention would destroy the Georgian people's trust in the country's leadership. LF
GEORGIA, NATO SIGN TRANSIT AGREEMENT
Foreign Minister Zourabichvili and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer signed an agreement in Brussels on 2 March under which the Georgian government consents to the transit across Georgian territory by air, road, and rail of NATO troops, equipment, and hardware, Caucasus Press and rustavi2.com reported. A NATO press release (http://www.nato.int/docu/pr/2005/p05-026e.htm) termed the agreement an important contribution by Georgia to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Some 50 Georgian peacekeepers served under German command in ISAF for three months last fall. LF
GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTIES DISCUSS BASIS FOR COOPERATION
Representatives of the opposition movement Forward, Georgia! and the Labor Party met in Tbilisi on 2 March to discuss the possibilities for cooperation, Caucasus Press and RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. The independent television station Rustavi-2 quoted Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili as saying the various opposition parties will push to replace the country's leadership by means of pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections, but do not plan to launch a revolution. He said other parties are welcome to join the embryonic alliance, with the exception of the National Movement, the Conservatives, and the Republican Party; he branded the latter two President Mikheil Saakashvili's "reserve." LF
SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADERSHIP DEMANDS OSCE OFFICIAL'S REPLACEMENT
During talks in late February with Roy Reeve, who heads the OSCE Mission in Georgia, unnamed senior South Ossetian officials asked that the OSCE replace Bulgarian diplomat Gancho Ganchev, who heads the OSCE office in Tskhinvali, Caucasus Press reported on 2 March, citing the office of Minister for Special Assignments Boris Chochiev. The statement claimed that unspecified actions by Ganchev are hindering efforts to resolve the conflict between the central Georgian government and the breakaway republic and undermining the Ossetian population's trust in the OSCE. LF
KAZAKH MINISTRY PREPARES PENSION INCREASES
Labor and Social Services Minister Gulzhana Karagusova announced on 2 March that her ministry is working to ensure that pensions will be raised as of 1 July, Khabar news agency reported. Karagusova said the new social programs that President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced in his 18 February address to the country, which include higher pensions and salaries for state employees, will cost 181 billion tenges ($1.4 billion) over three years, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Beginning on 1 July, pensioners will receive a 3,000-tenge addition to their pensions, bringing the basic monthly pension payment to 9,200 tenges and the average monthly pension to 12,000 tenges, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. State employees will get a 32 percent raise starting 1 July. DK
KYRGYZ OPPOSITION LEADER RAPS ELECTIONS
Kurmanbek Bakiev, the leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan and a candidate in a parliamentary runoff scheduled for 13 March, told a news conference in Bishkek on 2 March that the 27 February parliamentary elections were marred by numerous violations, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Noting that initial results indicate limited opposition representation in the country's new 75-seat unicameral parliament, Bakiev said "to achieve this, the authorities used administrative and financial resources, blocked roads, and created all sorts of obstacles." Bakiev has already announced plans to seek the presidency in the October 2005 election. DK
KYRGYZ OFFICIALS CALL FOR INVESTIGATION OF PRINTING-HOUSE POWER SHUTOFF
Bolot Januzakov, first deputy head of the Kyrgyz presidential administration, and Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov have proposed an investigation into the shutoff of power to an independent printing house in Bishkek in the run-up to the 27 February parliamentary elections, Kabar news agency reported on 2 March. In a message to Jennifer Windsor, the executive director of U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, which sponsors the printing house, Januzakov and Aitmatov took issue with a 23 February Freedom House press release on the incident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). Januzakov and Aitmatov denied that the power shutoff was linked to political concerns and called for an investigation into "the accusations that have been leveled against the Kyrgyz government." DK
TAJIK OPPOSITION PARTIES CHRONICLE ELECTION COMPLAINTS...
Four Tajik opposition parties -- the Communist Party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, the Democratic Party, and the Social Democratic Party -- are gathering materials on purported violations during the 27 February parliamentary elections and will soon file complaints with the Central Election Commission and the Supreme Court, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 2 March. Social Democratic Party head Rahmatullo Zoirov repeated on 2 March that he does not recognize the election results, which saw his party shut out of parliament. DK
...AS RULING PARTY DETAILS CAUSE OF SUCCESS
Davlatali Davlatov, deputy chairman of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan, told Avesta on 2 March that his party scored a crushing victory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005) in the 27 February parliamentary elections because "we worked actively and acted within the law." Davlatov ascribed the poor showing of opposition parties to their tendency to spend too much time on seminars organized by international organizations and too little time working with voters. "The parties' insufficient knowledge of election law might be another reason for their defeat in the elections," he added. DK
UZBEKISTAN CANCELS VISIT BY BRITISH OFFICIAL OVER RIGHTS FOCUS
Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry cancelled a planned visit to Uzbekistan on 2 March by British Foreign Office official Bill Rammell, the BBC reported. The ministry stated in a press release that the visit could not take place in light of Rammell's "unacceptable and impolite comments...which are an attempt at direct interference in the internal affairs of independent Uzbekistan," tribune.uz reported on 2 March. Although the Uzbek Foreign Ministry laid the blame for the visit's cancellation on the British side, a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said "it is the Uzbek government's decision in response to the minister's undertaking to continue to press over human rights," scotsman.com reported. On 26 February uzreport.uz quoted Rammell as saying: "The issue of human rights in Uzbekistan is of serious concern, and I believe that critical engagement is the best way to improve the situation. I will be pressing the Uzbek government about human rights." Rammell had planned to meet with a number of independent human rights organizations in Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. DK
BELARUSIAN VENDORS CONTINUE STRIKE OVER VAT ON RUSSIAN IMPORTS...
Some 300 small traders gathered on a central square in Minsk on 2 March for the second consecutive day of protests against an 18 percent valued-added tax (VAT) on imports from Russia, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The rally was supported by strikes of vendors at non-food markets in other Belarusian cities, albeit on a lesser scale than the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005). Riot police forced the Minsk protesters out of the square. JM
...AS GOVERNMENT HITS BACK
A district court in Minsk fined Maryna Bahdanovich of the opposition United Civic Party 4.8 million Belarusian rubles ($2,224) on 2 March for her role in an unauthorized rally staged the previous day in Minsk by vendors protesting against paying VAT in trade with Russia, Belapan reported. The same day, the same court jailed Anatol Shumchanka, leader of the Perspektyva business association, for 10 days, finding him guilty of calling for an open-ended strike by vendors from 1 March. Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Kabyakou said on Belarusian Television on 1 March that the government is ready to discuss only a VAT payment mechanism with vendors, not whether the tax should be paid or not. JM
UKRAINIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL CONFIRMS ARREST OF GONGADZE'S KILLERS...
Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun confirmed at a news conference in Kyiv on 2 March that the authorities have detained two suspected killers of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005), Ukrainian and international media reported. Piskun refused to name the detainees, but suggested that the abduction and assassination of Gongadze was a well-organized operation by Interior Ministry servicemen. "They had followed him and waited until he was alone, worked out a special operation, drove up in a car that he [Gongadze] thought was a taxi," Piskun said. "As soon as he got in the back seat of the car, three policemen jumped into the car. They took him outside Kyiv, beating him on the way. They brought him to the place [where they killed him], they tied his hands. In short, they killed him, poured gasoline on his body, and set it on fire." JM
...AND WANTS MELNYCHENKO TAPES AS EVIDENCE IN GONGADZE CASE
Prosecutor-General Piskun assured journalists on 2 March that he is ready to pursue the Gongadze case's political ties and implications, Ukrainian and international media reported. "I call on [former presidential bodyguard Mykola] Melnychenko to come to Ukraine to testify and also to hand over the originals of the recordings [of former President Leonid Kuchma's conversations] and the [recording] devices to representatives of the State Security Service, the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the special parliamentary commission for examination by international phonoscopic experts, with his participation," Piskun said. "The results of this examination will be used, in accordance with Ukrainian procedural law, as evidence in the criminal case." Piskun announced that he has closed a criminal case against Melnychenko for illegal eavesdropping on Kuchma. The Melnychenko tapes, among other revelations, implicate Kuchma and former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko in the abduction of Gongadze. Piskun said Kravchenko will be interrogated in the Gongadze case on 4 March. JM
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT SUSPENDS 12 LAWMAKERS WORKING IN GOVERNMENT
The Verkhovna Rada on 3 March approved the requests of 12 lawmakers to suspend their parliamentary powers in connection with their assumption of jobs in the executive branch following the installation of Viktor Yushchenko as Ukraine's new president, Interfax reported. Under Ukrainian law, a person cannot simultaneously work in the parliament and the government. In total, some 40 lawmakers have switched to the government under President Yushchenko. JM
SERBIAN OFFICIAL SAYS FORMER GENERAL PREPARED FOR THE HAGUE...
Serbian Deputy Justice Minister Branislav Bjelica told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on 2 March that the government is holding talks with former Chief of General Staff General Momcilo Perisic on Perisic's surrender to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. The Serbian government announced the same day that Perisic will leave for The Hague on 7 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24, 25, and 28 February 2005). Bjelica also said that he expects the ICTY to transfer the trials of the so-called Vukovar Three -- former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) officers Miroslav Radic, Veselin Sljivancanin, and Mile Mrksic -- to Belgrade. The three indictees have been charged with complicity in the killing of at least 264 Croats and other non-Serbs who were in the local hospital when the Croatian town of Vukovar fell to Serbian forces in November 1991. The ICTY has yet to decide whether the indictees will be tried in Croatia or Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2005). UB
...WHILE ICTY CHIEF PROSECUTOR DEMANDS MORE ARRESTS
Carla Del Ponte, who is the ICTY's chief prosecutor, told Austrian public ORF TV that cooperation with the tribunal means that indictees be arrested rather than surrender voluntarily, Belgrade's private Radio B92 reported on 1 March. Del Ponte added that it is a scandal that even 10 years after the Srebrenica massacre, former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have not yet been arrested. Del Ponte also said she is convinced that Mladic could be arrested within hours, repeating her threat to disclose information about the failure to arrest war criminals should Karadzic and Mladic not be handed over to The Hague by the end of 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 3 February 2005). UB
SERBIAN PREMIER PROPOSES COMPROMISE OVER STATUS OF KOSOVA...
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told the Belgrade daily "Blic" of 2 March that the solution for the future status of Kosova must be a high degree of autonomy within the framework of the state union of Serbia and Montenegro. "This is a compromise," Kostunica said. "Neither the return to old solutions, nor independence [for Kosova], which would undermine stability in the Balkans." Asked whether this would mean a union of Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosova, Kostunica said his idea would result in an "atypical" state construction, comparing it to other "atypical" decisions after the end of the Balkan wars in 1995, for instance Bosnia, which is, according to Kostunica, neither a federation nor a confederation. UB
...WHICH BRINGS MIXED REACTIONS IN MONTENEGRO, REBUFF IN PRISHTINA
Dragan Kujovic, a high-ranking official of Montenegro's governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), dismissed Kostunica's proposal on 2 March, saying it was "politically indecent," as it would result in the equalization of the status of Montenegro and Kosova, Tanjug reported. Dragisa Pesic of the pro-Serbian opposition Socialist People's Party (SNP) said his party would accept Kostunica's idea. Just as most Kosovar Albanians would not accept anything less than independence from Serbia, the governing DPS is pressing for Montenegrin independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 February 2005). Kosovar government spokesman Arben Qirezi said independence is the only solution to guarantee peace and stability in the region, Tanjug reported. UB
AMBIVALENCE IN PRISHTINA OVER MACEDONIAN PLANS FOR BORDER DEMARCATION
Following talks on the demarcation on the border between Kosova and Macedonia with the Serbian leadership, Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski arrived in Prishtina on 2 March to discuss the issue with his Kosovar counterpart Ramush Haradinaj and with Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), the private A1 TV reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February and 1 March 2005). Jessen-Petersen agreed with Buckovski's view that the border demarcation must be finalized before the final status of Kosova can be resolved. Haradinaj refrained from giving any concrete time frame for the demarcation, underscoring instead that this question will be resolved together with many others, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova canceled his meeting with Buckovski, reportedly because Rugova wants the borders to be demarcated only after the decision on the province's final status. During his visit, Buckovski officially opened a Macedonian trade mission in Prishtina. UB
ROMANIAN MINISTER SPECULATES ABOUT REDUCTION OF MINISTERS...
Romanian Defense Minister Teodor Atanasiu told a press conference on 2 March that it is possible that the number of ministers could be reduced from the current 25 to 16 before the summer, "Evenimentul zilei" reported. Atanasiu admitted, however, that the reduction has not yet been discussed by the government. Daniela Popa, a lawmaker for the junior coalition Humanist Party (PUR), said the government's priority must be the signing of the EU accession treaty in April. Governing Democratic Party (PD) Chairman Emil Boc refused to comment on Atanasiu's statement. UB
...AMID RENEWED DISCUSSION OF EARLY GENERAL ELECTIONS
Romanian President Traian Basescu said in an interview on 1 March that early general elections should be held immediately after the signing of the EU accession treaty, "Evenimentul zilei" reported. According to Basescu, the elections should be held in May, June, or September. Basescu argued that early elections could give the government a stronger mandate to fight corruption. PD Chairman Boc backed Basescu's suggestion, saying that early elections could help the governing coalition prepare the country's accession to the EU, "Ziua" reported. A spokesman for the National Liberal Party (PNL), the PD's coalition partner, said on 2 March that his party believes that the Justice and Truth alliance (of the PD and PNL) needs a consolidated government. Former Prime Minister and opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) Chairman Adrian Nastase said he opposes early elections, "Ziua" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2005). UB
ROMANIAN SECRET SERVICE ARCHIVES TO BE HANDED OVER TO STUDY CENTER BY END OF YEAR?
National College for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS) President Gheorghe Onisoru said on 2 March that he expects the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) to hand over the entire archives of the communist-era Securitate to the CNSAS by the end of 2005, RFE/RL's Romanian Service reported. On 10 March, the SRI will start handing over about two-thirds of the Securitate files to the CNSAS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 2 March 2005). UB
GEORGIAN PRESIDENT PLAYS DOWN ANTI-RUSSIAN INTENTIONS OF MOLDOVA VISIT...
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili arrived in Chisinau on 2 March for a one-day official visit at the invitation of his Moldovan counterpart Vladimir Voronin, Moldovan and Georgian news agencies reported. Saakashvili said his visit to Moldova is not about forming an anti-Russian alliance including Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, but about establishing normal relations between European countries, Moldpress reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005). Saakashvili and Voronin signed a joint declaration against separatism. "We are obliged to ensure the territorial integrity of our countries, and we will be only grateful to Russia for assistance in settling these problems," Voronin said, adding, however, that "we should not be kept within the framework of a nonexistent USSR." Voronin and Saakashvili also discussed the upcoming summit of GUUAM states -- Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova -- in Chisinau on 22 April. UB
...BUT SLAMS 'FOREIGN' INTERFERENCE IN MOLDOVAN ELECTION CAMPAIGN
Commenting on the 6 March parliamentary elections, President Saakashvili said he came to support democracy in Moldova, underscoring that he does not intend to support any particular political party, Basa-press and Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili met with Voronin, who is the chairman of the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM), and with opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca. At the same time, Saakashvili expressed his concern about the interference of unspecified Russian forces in the Moldovan election campaign. President Voronin and other PCM leaders have repeatedly accused unspecified political forces in Moscow of supporting the opposition, especially the Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February and 1 March 2005). UB
NGO ALLIANCE ANNOUNCES PARALLEL VOTE COUNT IN MOLDOVA
Coalition 2005, an alliance of more than 150 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) founded to ensure free and fair elections in Moldova, announced on 2 March that it will carry out a parallel vote count in the 6 March parliamentary elections, Infotag reported. Some 2,000 observers in the polling stations will use copies of the voting protocols to carry out the parallel count. Coalition 2005 will announce the results of its count shortly after the Central Election Commission announces its preliminary results of the poll. UB
GONGADZE CASE COULD OPEN PANDORA'S BOX IN UKRAINE
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun's press conference in Kyiv on 2 March revealed a number of new developments in the rapidly widening investigation of the slaying of online journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.
Piskun began by announcing that secret recordings made by former presidential security guard Mykola Melnychenko in former President Leonid Kuchma's office from the summer of 1999 to September 2000 will be allowed as evidence in the investigation if their authenticity is established by an international commission.
Piskun then invited Melnychenko, who has been granted refugee status in the United States, to return to Kyiv with his original tapes and recording equipment to take part in the authentication process. To pave the way for Melnychenko's return, Piskun said his safety would be guaranteed and said that charges against Melnychenko pertaining to the revelation of state secrets would be dropped.
Furthermore, Piskun announced that former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko has been summoned to appear at the Prosecutor-General's Office on 4 March for questioning in connection with the case.
The decision to interrogate Kravchenko and the possible inclusion of Melnychenko's recordings as evidence is a dramatic escalation in the search for who ordered the killing of Gongadze in September 2000. If the recordings are found be genuine, they could open a Pandora's box and have a far-reaching impact.
Melnychenko's tapes contain hundreds of hours of conversations that were recorded on digital audio files, most of which have not been transcribed due to poor audio quality and lack of funds to enhance the quality of the recordings. While the tapes were determined to be fakes by the Prosecutor-General's Office under Kuchma, they are widely believed in Ukraine to be genuine, and the pending reevaluation will be conducted under vastly more transparent circumstances. In the United States, a private audio-verification laboratory hired by Melnychenko, Bek Tek, has already examined excerpts of the recordings and found them to be genuine and untampered with.
If purported conversations between Kuchma and Kravchenko on the tapes are introduced as evidence, both men could be subject to arrest on criminal charges as accomplices to either kidnapping or murder. In addition, the scope of the Gongadze case could widen to include other people whose voices were allegedly captured on Melnychenko's tapes. Former Security Service head Leonid Derkach and parliament speaker Yuriy Lytvyn, who at the time headed Kuchma's administration, feature prominently among those who could face charges.
Another important factor is that by introducing the tapes as evidence in the Gongadze case, a precedent will have been set and the recordings could play a critical role in other, as yet unopened, criminal cases. This increases the probability that charges of obstruction of justice could be filed against two former prosecutors-general, Mykola Potebenko and Hennadiy Vasilyev.
Other cases based on the recordings that would likely be opened if Melnychenko's recordings are authenticated are: unsanctioned electronic surveillance of elected officials by the Security Service and its former head Derkach; illegal arms sales; fraudulent use of state funds for Kuchma's 1999 presidential campaign; alleged conversations with then Donetsk Governor Viktor Yanukovych about illegally removing independent judges; among others. In all these cases, Kuchma is allegedly recorded in Melnychenko's tapes giving illegal orders to his subordinates or approving their illegal initiatives.
The dilemma facing Yushchenko is how far the new government is willing to go in prosecuting the misdeeds of the Kuchma administration? During the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko supporters demanded that criminality be punished -- and Yushchenko himself is on record pledging to punish those responsible for crime and corruption in the past.
If the tapes are found to be genuine, and all indications are that they will be, a vast network of former officials allegedly involved in state-sponsored criminality could be liable for prosecution.
Others in Kyiv fear that the process could be undermined if, for example, certain members of the present government were to hear their own voices on the recordings.
Another important consideration is that a house cleaning on the basis of the tapes would be a serious blow to the pro-Kuchma and pro-Yanukovych forces prior to the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2006. A series of trials with their leaders in the dock accused of corruption and other crimes would badly damage their chances for gaining a majority in parliament.
FIRST-EVER FEMALE GOVERNOR APPOINTED FOR AFGHAN PROVINCE
President Hamid Karzai has approved the appointment of Habiba Sorabi as the governor of Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan Television reported on 2 March. In addition, Karzai appointed Abdul Jabar Naimi as the governor of Wardak Province, west of Kabul. Sorabi, who becomes the first female governor of an Afghan province, served as the minister of women's affairs in the Afghan Transitional Administration. AT
FORMER TALIBAN MINISTER INVOLVED IN AFGHAN RECONCILIATION EFFORTS
Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, the former foreign minister of the ousted Taliban regime, is playing a key role in the Afghan government's reconciliation efforts with members of the former regime, AFP reported on 1 March. Afghan presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin told a news conference in Kabul on 1 March that members of the Taliban regime who have come for talks with the government "are of course in consultation" with Mutawakkil. "I can say that [Mutawakkil] is in Kabul for a long time now," Ludin said, and he is "under supervision." Reports of efforts to include some Taliban members in a future administration have circulated since October 2003, when Mutawakkil was released from U.S. custody (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July and 30 October 2003 and 4 March, and 25 October 2004). An October 2004 report from Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran suggested that Mutawakkil intends to form a new political party. However Ludin told reporters that Kabul is not negotiating "with a party, a movement or a side." AT
IDENTITY CARDS TO BE ISSUED TO FORMER TALIBAN MEMBERS JOINING AFGHAN RECONCILIATION PROGRAM
Those members of the ousted Taliban regime who join the reconciliation program offered by Kabul will be issued special identity cards by the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan security forces, Kabul weekly "Cheragh" reported on 1 March. The cards are designed to identify their bearers as cooperating with the government so that foreign and local military and security forces don't harass them, the report added. On 1 March, presidential spokesman Ludin said that the Taliban members who came to talk with the government had asked for the issuance of such cards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005). AT
FORMER TALIBAN APPROACH GOVERNOR IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Gol Agha Sherzai, Kandahar Province governor and minister adviser to President Karzai, has claimed that he is in contact with former Taliban members, "Cheragh" reported on 1 March. "As the governor of Kandahar Province, I have begun talks with the Taliban and some of them have shown preparedness" to accept the government's reconciliation offer, Sherzai said. A neo-Taliban spokesman, Latifullah Hakimi, rejected Sherzai's claims as propaganda aimed at creating a rift in the ranks of the militia, "Cheragh" reported, citing the Hindukosh News Agency. Hakimi warned that the neo-Taliban will step up their attacks soon. It is expected that subversive activities by the militants will escalate as the weather becomes warmer. AT
FOUR 'WELL-KNOWN' NEO-TALIBAN MEMBERS REPORTEDLY ARRESTED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi said on 2 March that Afghan security forces have detained four members of the neo-Taliban in Oruzgan Province, AFP reported. "The arrested men are well-known members of the Taliban," Azimi added. He identified the men as Mullah Nazir, Raqib Akhund, Obidullah, and Nader. Azimi did not provide more information about the arrestees. AT
IRANIAN PROVINCIAL LAND DISPUTE ENDS VIOLENTLY
Chalus and Noshahr parliamentary representative Anushiravan Mohseni-Bandpey complained on 2 March that the police shot at and wounded 20 demonstrators in his constitutency, ILNA reported. People from the villages of Salaheddin-Kala, Tajeddin-Kala, and Pey-Kala were protesting provision of 70 hectares of village land to the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, which is in charge of building the Tehran-North freeway, when the shooting began. Mohseni-Bandpey asked the interior minister, who is responsible for the police, who gave the order to shoot. Previously, Mohseni-Bandpey was eager for construction to begin. On 9 June 2004 he complained there was hardly any progress on the freeway, which will connect the capital with the Caspian coast more safely than the existing roads, IRNA reported. BS
PUBLISHER BANNED FOR TWO YEARS IN IRAN
"Aban" publisher Mohammad Hassan Alipur has received a six-month suspended sentence and a two-year ban on press activities for "publishing fabricated reports," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 2 March. His lawyer, Mohammad Sharif, said the sentence relates to an article entitled "People Will Prevail" and a caricature in the newspaper, ISNA reported. BS
NEW REFORMIST FRONT BEING MULLED IN IRAN
"Etemad" managing director and former legislator Elias Hazrati has announced that he is considering forming a new political entity called the National Confidence Front, state television reported on 2 March. Hazrati was a member of the reformist Solidarity (Hambastegi) Party. BS
IRANIAN REFORMIST CANDIDATE EXPRESSES CONFIDENCE
Prospective presidential candidate and Vice President for Physical Training Mohsen Mehralizadeh said during a 2 March visit to Western Azerbaijan Province that the reformist 2nd of Khordad Front will back his candidacy, state television reported. So far, former parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and former Science, Research, and Technology Minister Mustafa Moin are considered the reformist frontrunners. A reformist parliamentarian from Bojnurd, Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam, said Moin's strength is his connection with the universities and their role in the 1997 election, "Etemad" reported on 2 March. This worries the right wing. He added that the tactic of eliminating candidates will not work in this election, because eliminating one reformist candidate will shift all support for him to the other candidate. Rasul Montajabnia, who runs clerical affairs for Karrubi's campaign, said there will be several clerical conferences to support the candidate, "Etemad" reported. He added that they are in touch with the grand ayatollahs, and although their explicit support is not expected they should encourage people to participate in the election. BS
ETHNICITY BECOMING FACTOR IN IRANIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
Former parliamentarian Mohammad Rezai, who represented Bijar, Kurdistan Province, in the sixth parliament (2000-04), said that several ethnic groups have created a headquarters so they can work together to support Mehdi Karrubi's candidacy, "Etemad" reported on 2 March. He said, "One of the goals of such popular headquarters is to increase public participation, and to organize the election activities of various professional, political, and social groups among the many millions of Turkish [Azeri] and Kurdish people who live in Tehran Province." Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati warned during his 25 February Friday prayers sermon in Tehran that ethnicity should not be an issue during the campaign, state radio reported. He said: "Some candidates are provoking ethnic sensitivities in some places in order to win votes.... The survival of this country and this state depends on the unity of all ethnic and [religious] groups." Undermining this unity is tantamount to betraying Iran, he said. Jannati urged candidates not to discuss "issues in certain areas" just to gain votes. "If you do so, ethnic sensitivities will be provoked and this will result in discord. That's not the right thing to do." BS
CAR BOMBS DETONATE OUTSIDE IRAQI INTERIOR MINISTRY
Two car bombs were detonated outside the Interior Ministry in Baghdad on 3 March, killing at least five policemen and wounding several others, Reuters reported. The first vehicle to explode was apparently serving as a decoy for the second, more powerful car bomb, AFP reported. "A Kia vehicle tried to enter the checkpoint and at this moment blew up. It was not that effective but made a large amount of smoke so we couldn't see anything," policeman Muhammad Ja'far told AFP. "Two minutes later, a Jeep Cherokee reached the checkpoint and opened fire with an MG machine gun and police fired back but it was too late because he reached the checkpoint and blew up" his vehicle, Ja'far added. A third car bomb detonated north of Baghdad in Ba'qubah on 3 March, killing at least one civilian and wounding 14 people, a police official told Reuters. The bombing occurred outside the local National Guard headquarters in the city. Al-Arabiyah reported that Ba'qubah's police chief was targeted in the attack. KR
PRESIDENTIAL CONTENDER TALABANI ENDORSES AL-JA'FARI AS PREMIER...
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) head Jalal Talabani told reporters in Al-Sulaymaniyah on 2 March that he has endorsed the nomination of United Iraqi Alliance candidate Ibrahim al-Ja'fari for prime minister, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. "We support the nomination of al-Ja'fari for the post of prime minister in the new Iraqi government," Talabani said, adding that the two men have agreed to form a joint coordination committee that will work to build an alliance between the Kurds and Shi'ite list. KurdSat television said the committee will work to formulate a joint policy for the groups. Al-Ja'fari voiced his support for Talabani's nomination as the transitional president at the press briefing, Al-Sharqiyah reported. KR
...BUT ALLIANCE POSITION ON KIRKUK UNCLEAR
According to a 3 March report by AP, al-Ja'fari left the meeting without committing to support Kurdish demands on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. It appears, however, that at least the United Iraqi Alliance do not see this as an obstacle to their relations with the Kurds. Alliance member Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in an interview broadcast on 1 March: "If there is the Kirkuk issue or other issues that can be solved according to the provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law, then they will be dealt with in the coming time but they must not be an obstacle for progress in the political process." KR
IRAQ'S MUSLIM SCHOLARS ASSOCIATION HEAD COMMENTS ON SUNNI POSITIONS...
Harith al-Dari told London's "Al-Hayat" in a 2 March interview that he accepts the position of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is seeking to forge relations with the elected transitional government, but he denied that the association wholly supports member Ahmad al-Samarra'i's efforts to establish a coalition to support greater Sunni participation in the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). Al-Dari called the Islamic Party's position "justified," but said al-Samarra'i's actions were "not related to the association." "Abd al-Hamid and al-Samarra'i's moves will not change the association's position, which is aimed at drawing up a timetable for the withdrawal of the occupation forces. The Sunnis are united. The existing differences are no more than different viewpoints," al-Dari contended. KR
...AND SAYS ASSOCIATION CAN INFLUENCE INSURGENTS TO LAY DOWN ARMS
Al-Dari told "Al-Hayat" that he believes some "resistance" groups would listen to a demand by the association to cease fighting Iraqi and multinational forces "if the situation develops toward enhancing hopes that the occupation will leave the Iraqi territories." He stressed, however, that his contention "does not mean there are direct relations between the association and the antioccupation national resistance. Rather the issue reflects the respect of the resistance for the association and its positions." KR
MASS GRAVE FOUND NEAR KIRKUK
A mass grave containing the bodies of some 20 Kurds was discovered in the Shuwan area near Kirkuk on 1 March, "Kurdistani Nuwe" reported on 2 March. An unidentified source told the daily that the bodies found in the grave included women and children, all dressed in Kurdish clothing. "There was also a Kalashnikov that seemed to have belonged to a peshmerga," the source said. A thorough investigation into the identity of the victims and when they were killed has not begun. The source claimed that there were indications that the victims were buried alive in the 1980s. KR