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Newsline - December 17, 2002

The trial of Colonel Yurii Budanov, who is accused of murdering a Chechen girl, Elza Kungaeva, in March 2000, resumed on 16 December in Rostov-na-Donu after a six-month break, Russian news agencies reported. Budanov has consistently pleaded temporary insanity and claimed that he believed Kungaeva was a Chechen sniper. In June 2002, the prosecutor proposed that Budanov be acquitted on grounds of diminished responsibility, after which the case was referred for a second time to the Serbskii Institute of Psychiatry in Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 19 June 2002). Kungaeva's father cast doubt on the court's ruling, saying he will seek an independent examination of Budanov, Reuters reported. LF

Chechen administration officials expressed concern on 16 December that the Rostov court ruling that Colonel Budanov is insane will cause widespread anger in Chechnya, Russian news agencies reported. Russian presidential envoy for human rights in Chechnya Abdul-Khakim Sultygov told ITAR-TASS that "people in Chechnya are convinced Budanov is a criminal, a murderer. Such a mild verdict -- de facto acquittal -- will disturb Chechen society." Deputy administration head Tauz Dzhabrailov pointed out that "it will be difficult for the republic's leadership to explain to the population why Budanov, if he is really [mentally] ill, was appointed a regiment commander," according to Interfax on 16 December. Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev condemned the court ruling as a classic Soviet-style cover-up. He suggested that Russian "national patriots" supported Budanov's efforts to escape criminal responsibility for Kungaeva's murder. LF

President Vladimir Putin met in the Kremlin on 17 December with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Russian news agencies reported. After the meeting, Putin told reporters that military cooperation between the two countries is developing well and that in recent years Russia has supplied Yemen with arms and military equipment worth more than $8 billion, ITAR-TASS reported. Putin stressed that the two countries have a number of common interests in the Red Sea region and that Yemen is playing an important role in combating international terrorism. ORT and RTR both commented on 15 December that Putin wants to use Russia's considerable influence to cement Yemen's ties to the global antiterrorism coalition. Moscow has had considerable influence in Yemen since the Soviet era, when South Yemen was a loyal ally. Most members of the Yemeni political and military elites were educated in the Soviet Union, ORT noted. reported on 17 December that Putin and Saleh discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq situation. Saleh stressed that his country opposes the use of military force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. VY

The sudden death in prison from "internal bleeding" of Chechen field commander Salman Raduev on 14 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002) was politically motivated, asserted on 17 December. The website connected Raduev's death with the equally unexpected and mysterious death in prison of former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister and National Security Minister Turpal-Ali Atgeriev on 18 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 August 2002) from "internal bleeding" that was attributed to leukemia. Both Raduev and Atgeriev were involved in the same criminal case concerning the 1996 raid on the town of Kyzlyar. Moreover, Atgeriev twice told journalists that he had warned then-FSB Director Putin in 1999 of an imminent incursion by Chechen fighters into Daghestan. speculated that both men might have possessed information that influential people in Russia and Chechnya would like to conceal. As for "internal bleeding," it is often caused by severe beatings, the website added. VY

The Moscow City Court on 16 December resumed hearing the case of Professor Anatolii Babkin, who stands accused of "state treason in the form of espionage" for the United States, ORT reported. Babkin, 72, was arrested in August 2000 together with U.S. engineer Edmund Pope and indicted for allegedly transferring to Pope classified information about the Russian Shkval high-speed, liquid-fueled, rocket-propelled torpedo. In 2001, Pope was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment. However, President Putin pardoned him in December 2001. Babkin was convicted of revealing state secrets but was released for "humanitarian reasons." Now, however, prosecutors have revived the case by arguing that Babkin was guilty not just of revealing secrets but of "high treason." Babkin's lawyers argue that he is not guilty of either crime, since he left his job in 1966 and the materials that he showed to Pope were only classified in 1973. VY

The chief of the FSB's Internal Security Department, Sergei Shishin, has said that an unidentified FSB officer pled guilty to charges of selling classified information to MOST-Media over a period of several years and was sentenced by a secret court over the summer to "several years" in prison, reported on 17 December. At the time, MOST-Media was the flagship company of tycoon Vladimir Gusinskii and its security department was largely staffed by former KGB and FSB officers who were involved in "the total surveillance of Gusinskii's opponents." RC

Speaking at the opening of the seventh annual World Russian Peoples' Congress in Moscow on 17 December, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Aleksii II called for a revival of business and work ethics, RIA-Novosti and other Russian news agencies reported. The patriarch added that periods of reform are often accompanied by moral decay. Archbishop of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kirill called on the state to redistribute the national wealth to benefit "the have-nots and those who cannot work." Deputy Duma Speaker and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii said that the congress should clearly declare that "Russians are a state-forming nationality and that empire is the Russian system of government." He added that by the term "Russian" he means all those who acknowledge Russian culture. Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov called for the transformation of the nonprofit, arts-oriented Kultura television channel into a "Russian television channel." VY

Unified Russia and the Communist Party are running neck and neck in polls asking voters about their current preferences for the December 2003 State Duma elections, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 16 December. Yurii Levada, director of the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), told the bureau that according to a recent poll in which voters were asked which party they would vote for if elections were held this week, Unified Russia would receive some 29 percent of the vote compared with 27 percent for the Communist Party and 9 percent for rightist groups such as the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS). However, the Agency for Regional and Political Research (ARPI) found that if survey respondents are asked if they would vote for Unified Russia if President Putin did not support it, around 50 percent of the people previously identified as the party's supporters would not. Meanwhile, Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, told participants at a roundtable on the upcoming elections that, "Unified Russia owes its rating to Putin, and its fate will depend on whether or not the president will want to transfer a part of his charisma to it," RosBalt reported. JAC

Media reports that appeared on 16 December claiming that a grassroots movement was being formed to nominate Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov for the 2004 presidential race were flatly denied by Kasyanov's aide on 17 December, reported. On 16 December, and other Russian media reported that an interregional conference of an initiative group for the creation of an all-Russia committee to nominate Kasyanov was scheduled to be held in Nizhnii Novgorod on 17 December. The reports quoted alleged conference organizers as saying that 1,100 Russians in 57 regions support Kasyanov's candidacy. The reports "are either disinformation or a provocation intended to discredit the head of the government," said Kasyanov's chief of staff, Aleksei Volin. He noted that in 1996 rumors appeared that a movement was forming to support then-Security Council head Aleksandr Lebed for president, after which Lebed was summarily dismissed from his post. "It appears that the organizers of this stunt are using old methods," Volin said. RC/JAC

The Liberal Russia party's political council voted on 16 December to expel the leaders of 18 regional divisions who participated in the 7 December extraordinary congress in St. Petersburg at which more than 200 participants voted tycoon Boris Berezovskii back into the party, RosBalt and Interfax reported, citing party co-Chairman Sergei Yushenkov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2002). According to Yushenkov, who is also a State Duma deputy, the council also decided to reform five regional party branches in Krasnodar Krai, Irkutsk and Tula oblasts, and the republics of Bashkortostan and Tuva. Yushenkov added that only 100 of the more than 200 people at the 7 December congress were actually members of the party. Reacting to news of the political council's decision, Viktor Shmakov of the Bashkir branch said that his group will seek to annul the council's decision in court. The party has 3,000 members in Bashkortostan, Shmakov said. JAC

Registration for candidates in the 26 January gubernatorial election in Taimyr Autonomous Okrug closed officially on 16 December with seven people having completed the process, RIA-Novosti reported. The election is being held to replace Aleksandr Khloponin, who was elected governor of neighboring Krasnoyarsk Krai in September. According to "Vremya novostei" on 16 December, Norilsk Mayor Oleg Budargin is considered the candidate that Khloponin and the company he once headed, Norilsk Nickel, favor. Budargin is the former personnel director of the Norilsk Mining and Metallurgical Complex. According to the daily, no local expert doubts that Norilsk Nickel lacks the financial resources to "sell" its candidate, particularly in light of the fact that the okrug's population totals only about 40,000 people. Other candidates are okrug legislator Gennadii Subbotkin and Norilsk Nickel security-service specialist Igor Priimak. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 17 December, Priimak is registered as a candidate not to seek the office himself but to ensure that all goes smoothly for Budargin, Khloponin's unofficial "successor." JAC

The competition for the 2 February gubernatorial election in Magadan Oblast is so far made up of entirely local candidates, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 16 December. Acting Governor Nikolai Dubov, Magadan Mayor Nikolai Karpenko, Deputy Director of the Pacific Ocean Fish Industrial Company Petr Golubovskii, Magadan Sea Trading Port head Andrei Zinchenko, and the director of Rosselkhozbank's Magadan branch, Tatyana Bogalova, will all vie to replace Valentin Tsvetkov, who was murdered in Moscow in October. Registration began on 29 November. According to the daily, rumors are circulating in the State Duma that Communist Deputy Sergei Glaziev, who ran unsuccessfully this summer for governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, intends to compete in the elections. However, when asked about them, a representative of Glaziev's office said, "This is the first we've heard about it." Karpenko and Dubov are considered favorites in the race, according to the daily. Unity's Duma faction leader Vladimir Pekhtin has said he will support Karpenko. JAC

Vladimir Zorin, the government minister responsible for nationalities policies, told reporters in Moscow on 16 December there are about 3 million illegal foreign workers in Russia and that the number of legal foreign workers increased 19 percent during the first half of this year, compared with the same period last year, Interfax reported. The largest increases were marked in Western Siberia, with a 46 percent hike, and Primorskii Krai, which jumped 38 percent. JAC

The first edition of the Chinese-language newspaper "China" has appeared in Krasnoyarsk, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on 16 December. The intended audience for the newspaper, which is owned by a local entrepreneur, is the Chinese diaspora in Krasnoyarsk. JAC

A group of Muslim women from Kazan have complained to the chief inspector of the federal Interior Ministry regarding the refusal of the republic's passport service to accept photographs of women in headscarves for their passports, reported on 16 December. Zulfii Fatkhullina of the Union of Muslim Women said Muslim women who have refused to have their passport photos taken without headscarves have faced difficulties because they don't have passports. One woman was reportedly refused admittance to the maternity ward of a local hospital, while others cannot find work or receive state-subsidized medical care. JAC

President Putin named Ruslan Tsakaev Chechen interior minister on 16 December, ITAR-TASS reported. Tsakaev, 46, studied law at Moscow State University and worked in the Justice Ministry and Prosecutor's Office of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. In 1995-96, he served as Security Council secretary under then-Chechen Prime Minister Doku Zavgaev, who on 16 December described Tsakaev as "one of the most courageous, honest, and decent" members of his government and as "a real professional," ITAR-TASS reported. Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov on 16 December pledged his full support for Tsakaev, while adding that "he was not my choice," ITAR-TASS reported. "Vremya-MN" predicted on 14 November that the interim head of the Chechen Internal Affairs Directorate, Major General Said-Selim Peshkhoev, would be named to head the newly created Interior Ministry. Also on 16 December, Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov appointed Vladimir Kravchenko to serve as Chechnya's prosecutor, ITAR-TASS reported. Kravchenko, 52, was born in Belarus and graduated in 1971 from the Saratov Law Institute. Since that time, he has worked in prosecutors' offices at various levels in Stavropol Krai. In late 1997, he transferred to the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office. His most recent assignment was as deputy head of the department for special cases in the North Caucasus. LF

A Yerevan court on 16 December sentenced Turkologist and former Foreign Ministry official Murad Bojolian to 10 years' imprisonment on charges of spying for Turkey, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Bojolian, who since 1998 worked as a correspondent for a Turkish news agency, confessed to the charges immediately after his arrest in January but retracted the confession in July, saying it was made under fear of torture and for the fate of his family (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2002). According to Interfax, Bojolian was found to have passed to Turkish intelligence information about Armenia's military ties with Georgia, Iran, and Russia, as well as data about the Russian military base in Armenia, the armaments of the Armenian armed forces, and the activities in Armenia of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Armenian officials have consistently denied repeated Turkish allegations that the PKK has training camps in Armenia. Bojolian's wife, Lyudmila, told RFE/RL she will appeal the sentence with the European Court of Human Rights. LF

A NATO delegation headed by Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Joseph Ralston met in Yerevan on 16 December with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Noyan Tapan reported. Ralston acknowledged the "tremendous progress" made in Armenia-NATO contacts over the past few years. Kocharian, too, gave a positive assessment of relations and expressed the hope that Ralston's visit will mark "a new step" in Armenia's relations with the alliance. Ralston and Kocharian also discussed Armenia's participation in the Kosova peacekeeping operation and the planned NATO maneuvers to be held in Armenia in June 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 July 2002). LF

An Iranian parliament delegation that arrived in Armenia on 12 December met on 16 December with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian, and Foreign Minister Oskanian, according to Armenian agencies cited by Groong. Markarian described bilateral relations as "strategic" and "long-term," and called for an expansion of "important" economic ties and bilateral trade. Khachatrian said Armenia supports Iran's aspiration to membership of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization, Noyan Tapan reported. Oskanian noted in particular Iran's balanced policy toward the Karabakh conflict, which he said has a positive impact on the entire South Caucasus, according to Interfax. Meeting with an Armenian government delegation that visited Tehran last week, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for a peaceful solution to all conflicts in the South Caucasus, while Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi again affirmed Iran's readiness to help mediate a settlement of the Karabakh conflict. LF

Visiting Tbilisi on 16 December, Colonel General Safar Abiev met with his Georgian counterpart Lieutenant General David Tevzadze, President Eduard Shevardnadze, and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, Caucasus Press reported. The primary topic of discussion was bilateral military cooperation, and the two ministers signed an agreement on military and technical cooperation. The Azerbaijani minority in southeastern Georgia, which has for years protested discrimination, was also discussed. Abiev said Azerbaijan plans to expand its cooperation with NATO with a view to eventual membership of the alliance. He further expressed concern at the anticipated redeployment to Armenia of Russian military units whose withdrawal from bases in Georgia Tbilisi is insisting on. Abiev said such a redeployment will create a new threat to Azerbaijan and that Baku will refuse to participate in joint military exercises with Georgia if it goes ahead. Speaking in Yerevan the same day, Armenian Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant General Mikael Harutiunian said a small unit of Russian signal troops will be transferred from Georgia to Armenia, according to Mediamax as cited by Groong. LF

Azerbaijani opposition parties failed to attend a roundtable discussion of Azerbaijan's new election law organized by the OSCE office in Baku on 16 December, Turan reported. They had earlier said they would participate only if they were equally represented at that meeting with representatives of the Azerbaijani authorities and if journalists were allowed to attend. Azerbaijani opposition politicians have condemned the new draft law as even more reactionary than its predecessor, and as not precluding malpractice. Also on 16 December, Turan reported that the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, together with the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, has released a preliminary assessment of the draft election legislation that comprises 210 comments and recommendations. LF

Abkhaz security officials freed Elena Tkebuchava, the elderly mother of Slavneft Vice President Djumber Tkebuchava, during the night of 15-16 December and apprehended the persons who snatched her from her home in Tkvarcheli last month, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 12 December 2002). No ransom was paid, according to Abkhaz Interior Minister Amazbey Kchach. LF

Colonel General Mukhtarbek Altynbaev was personally piloting the Kazakh Tu-134 aircraft that was required by Czech air-traffic controllers to make an unscheduled landing at Pardubice en route for the Prague NATO summit last month, CTK reported on 17 December, quoting "Mlada fronta Dnes," which in turn quoted an unidentified diplomat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 25 November 2002). The paper also quoted Czech Air Force commander Frantisek Padelek as saying the Kazakh plane was forced to land because "the pilot was not able to say where he was from, who was aboard, or even that it was a VIP flight." LF

U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan John O'Keefe and senior Kyrgyz officials attended a ceremony on 16 December at the Manas Air Base near Bishkek, which for the past year has been used by international forces engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Interfax and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. O'Keefe described Kyrgyzstan as a key strategic ally in the antiterrorism coalition, while Kyrgyz State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov in turn expressed gratitude for international support for Kyrgyzstan in its own efforts to withstand a possible renewed attack by Islamic militants. He added that the Kyrgyz are ready to fight terrorism "on horseback, if need be," as their ancestors did, reported. LF

Meeting on 13 December with residents of Bishkek, Askar Akaev noted that industrial enterprises in the capital, which produces 25 percent of the country's GDP, exceeded production targets for the first 11 months of 2002 by 4.7 percent, reported. Industrial output for the country as a whole fell by 17.7 percent during the first 10 months of the year, according to on 9 December. Akaev expressed the hope that the encouraging Bishkek production figures herald economic stabilization. He further noted that more than 25,000 people found new employment in Bishkek this year. LF

The Tajik government has approved a three-year program for regulating the temporary employment of Tajik citizens abroad, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 16 December. That program envisages reducing the number of people who travel abroad to work, ensuring that they have the requisite permits to work abroad, and training them in additional skills. Tens of thousands of Tajik men, some accompanied by their families, travel to Russia and Kazakhstan every year to take up menial and poorly paid jobs, often in the construction industry and often without the necessary permits. Russia forcibly repatriated several dozen such illegal workers last month, a move that President Imomali Rakhmonov decried as a violation of human rights. LF

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has issued a decree changing some figures in the 2002 budget, Belapan reported on 16 December, quoting the presidential press service. The decree increased the budget's revenues by 240.6 billion Belarusian rubles ($125.7 million) and expenditures by 354.6 billion Belarusian rubles. Former National Bank Chairman Stanislau Bahdankevich commented that Lukashenka's decision to correct the budget only adds to the country's negative image. Bahdankevich stressed that budget revision should be an exceptional measure subject to parliamentary approval, adding that the government should be accountable to the legislature for all budgetary miscalculations. JM

Former Ambassador to Japan Pyotr Krauchanka has returned to Minsk, Belapan reported on 16 December, quoting the Foreign Ministry press service but not specifying the date of his arrival. Earlier this month, the Foreign Ministry said Krauchanka refused to return to Belarus from Japan after the conclusion of his four-year term of diplomatic service (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2002). Krauchanka subsequently denied media reports of his purported intention not to return to Belarus as "political provocation." He also pledged to reveal "major sensations" regarding political life in Belarus after his homecoming (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2002). JM

Visiting Russian State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev told students of the Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University on 17 December that Ukraine's membership in the Eurasian Economic Community might enable Moscow and Kyiv more effectively to settle problems connected with the creation of a free-trade zone as well as with bilateral tax, tariff, and customs policies, ITAR-TASS reported. The Eurasian Economic Community comprises Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The previous day, Seleznev met with President Leonid Kuchma and Premier Viktor Yanukovych. JM

In a 27 November-5 December poll among 1,200 people, some 8.6 percent of respondents said they fully trust President Leonid Kuchma, UNIAN reported on 16 December. Another 54.7 percent said they distrust him, according to the results of the Democratic Initiatives Fund and Taylor Nelson Sofres Ukraine group survey. According to the poll, presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk is trusted by 5.4 percent of Ukrainians and distrusted by 42.1 percent; 5.4 percent trust Premier Viktor Yanukovych and 24.7 percent distrust him; and Verkhovna Rada Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn is trusted by 4.8 percent and distrusted by 32.9 percent. Among opposition politicians, the best "balance of trust" is enjoyed by Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko (25.2 percent and 33.8 percent), followed by Communist Party head Petro Symonenko (14.8 percent and 46.6 percent). JM

Canada reopened its ports to Estonian fishing vessels after officials on 15 December acceded to terms stemming from a long-running shrimping dispute, BNS and ETA reported the next day. Canadian Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault said after the deal was struck that Estonia agreed to all the conditions set by Canada. Estonia will thus permit Canadian observers aboard all its vessels fishing in Canadian waters, even if they are leased to another country. Charging that it had "clear evidence of violations" of shrimp-fishing quotas off its eastern seaboard, Canada closed its ports to fishing boats from Estonia in April. Estonia countered that Canadian estimates were incorrect and that it was not exceeding the quotas. SG

The chairman of the New Era faction in parliament, Arturs Krisjanis Karins, said on 16 December that some of Latvia's delegates to the EU's Future of Europe Convention will be replaced, LETA reported. Rihards Piks of the People's Party was the only one of four deputies slated as delegates or alternates to the convention in February (see "Baltic States Report," 5 March 2002) who was re-elected to parliament in October. Karins said New Era's Liene Liepina and Piks will be delegates, while he and Arvids Ulme from the Union of Greens and Farmers will serve as alternates. The government will continue to be represented at the convention by Transportation Minister Roberts Zile, who was minister for international financial affairs in the previous government. Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete will be his alternate. SG

Romanian Defense Minister Ion Mircea Pascu and his Lithuanian counterpart Linas Linkevicius participated in the signing ceremony for a bilateral military-cooperation plan for 2003 in Vilnius on 16 December, ELTA reported. It calls for a visit by the Romanian Army's commander to Lithuania, political and military consultations, a study trip by Lithuanian military officers to the regional Partnership for Peace training center in Bucharest, and exchanges of experience, among other things. The two countries have signed such plans every year since 1998. Prior to the signing, the defense ministers discussed their respective troops serving in Afghanistan and the possible fields of specialization for their militaries now that both have received invitations to join NATO. Pascu held talks with President Valdas Adamkus on 17 December, and he is scheduled to visit facilities in Rukla and Karmelava before departing for Riga. SG

Prime Minister Leszek Miller declared in Lodz on 16 December that he will tour the country in support of a "yes" vote in next year's referendum on Poland's EU entry, PAP reported. "We have a lot of work to do. We must convince those who have fears connected with Poland's joining the EU and do not know yet what to do in the referendum," Miller said. He added that the referendum will most likely be held on 8 June, nearly 11 months ahead of expected membership. Speaking on Polish Radio earlier the same day, Miller backtracked on an earlier pledge to resign if Poles reject EU accession, Reuters reported. "This [resignation threat] limits potential allies by making the ballot into an ultimatum," Miller said. "I am aware that backing for accession is larger than that for the government." JM

Deputy Premier and Agriculture Minister Jaroslaw Kalinowski on 16 December said Poland's deal at the EU summit in Copenhagen (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 17 December 2002) provides a "historic chance" for Polish agriculture, PAP reported. According to Kalinowski, the country's agricultural and rural communities have a chance to gain most from integration with the European Union. The leader of the Farmers' Circles, Wladyslaw Serafin, said he views the results of the summit "without enthusiasm" but added they are "a good starting point for dialogue on the future of Polish agriculture and rural areas." Meanwhile, lawmaker Zdzislaw Podkanski of Kalinowski's Peasant Party, along with Agricultural Solidarity leader Roman Wierzbicki and a number of rural organization activists in the Lublin region, signed an appeal calling on Poles to vote "no" on EU membership. JM

Polish firefighters on 16 December launched a protest demanding pay rises to provide equivalent wages to those earned by police, PAP reported. The protest, organized by Solidarity and the Florian Firefighters Trade Union, started in Lodz Province (central Poland) as well as in Swietokrzyskie and Opole provinces (southern Poland), while firefighters from other parts of the country are expected to join in the coming weeks. Protest spokesman Aleksander Migut in Lodz said the demands for equal pay with police are based on a 1997 agreement with the government. He also assured the public that the protest will not influence the fire service's daily work nor will it compromise safety in any way. JM

Chamber of Deputies speaker Lubomir Zaoralek on 16 December officially convoked a joint session of the lower house and the Senate for 15 January to elect the Czech Republic's next president, CTK reported. Outgoing President Vaclav Havel's second term ends in early February. Under the Czech Constitution, the lower house speaker calls the joint session that elects the president after consulting with the leadership of the chamber. The only official candidate for the position so far is former Premier Vaclav Klaus, whose Civic Democratic Party (ODS) submitted his candidacy to parliament. Other parties have announced candidates but not yet nominated anyone. The senior coalition Social Democratic Party (CSSD) has selected former Justice Minister Jaroslav Bures as a candidate, but former Premier Milos Zeman, who won the CSSD primary for the nomination, said he will run if the president is not elected in the first round of voting. The Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) selected Senate President Petr Pithart, and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia chose a former prosecutor, Miroslav Krizenecky. MS

Pavel Telicka, chief Czech negotiator with the EU, on 16 December warned that a vote against accession in the referendum scheduled for next year would transform the Czech Republic into "an island surrounded by the EU, with all the negative consequences deriving from this," CTK reported. The plebiscite is to be held on 15-16 June, presumably after neighboring Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia hold similar votes. Enthusiasm for joining the EU is considerably lower in the Czech Republic than in those countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002). A public-opinion poll conducted by TNS Factum after the completion on 13 December of negotiations in Copenhagen showed that one in two Czechs considers the terms of accession bad, CTK reported, citing TV Nova. There will be no threshold for turnout in the referendum, but if the vote is "no" a new plebiscite cannot be scheduled for two years. In related news, CTK reported on 16 December that Telicka will be appointed Czech ambassador to the EU and will be replaced as deputy foreign minister by Jan Kohout. MS

Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik said through a spokesman on 16 December that he has ordered that the Czech antichemical- and antibacteriological-warfare unit serving in Kuwait remain in that country until at least March, CTK reported. Spokesman Milan Repka said cabinet ministers "took note" of the order at their meeting the same day. Repka declined to say what might happen after March but added that the ministry will seek funds from its own budget to enable the unit to continue serving there. Local media have reported that the Czech Republic intends to withdraw the bulk of those soldiers due to a shortage of funds following the devastating August floods. Kuwaiti officials reportedly considered financing the Czech unit's costs, only to reconsider (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November and 10 December 2002). MS

Foreign Ministry State Secretary Ivan Korcok said in Brussels on 16 December that his country has pledged to contribute to the NATO budget, protect classified information, and pass the relevant legislation, TASR reported. Korcok said that day's round of talks officially concludes his country's accession negotiations. He reiterated that both sides agreed not to publish the Slovak contribution to NATO's budget before negotiations with all other countries invited to join the alliance in November are also concluded, but TASR said the Slovak contribution will represent 0.5 percent of its 2003 budget, or 135 million crowns ($3.32 million). Slovakia also pledged to continue military reforms and to allocate 2 percent of its GDP for defense spending. MS

The calls for replacing former Premier Vladimir Meciar as chairman of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) are again mounting, TASR reported on 16 December. Shortly after the September general elections, prominent HZDS leaders called for Meciar's replacement, and several local HZDS branches voted in favor of the move. In an open letter provided to TASR, Jaroslav Olenak, deputy chairman of the Kosice region branch of the party, said the HZDS "finds itself in international isolation due to the policies of Meciar." He said that was "confirmed by the [November] NATO summit in Prague and by the position of the EU member countries" at the Copenhagen summit. He also said Meciar has failed to assume responsibility for the September electoral defeat, as is customary in "democratic countries and democratic parties." One day earlier, HZDS Deputy Chairman Vojtech Tkac said he is considering forming a new party. Olga Keltosova, a prominent HZDS parliamentary deputy, said on 16 December that the time has come for Meciar to leave. MS

Some 8,000 applications for asylum were registered this year in Slovakia, the highest number since the country became independent 10 years ago, TASR reported on 16 December. The news agency cited Perfrancesco Maria Natta, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees branch office in Bratislava, who told journalists the number of applications might grow in 2003. Only 16 of the applications for asylum submitted in 2002 were approved, while 126 were rejected and 3,373 are currently being processed. Of more than 20,000 applications registered since 1992, just 553 have been approved. MS

With the exception of the center-right opposition Democratic Forum, all parliamentary parties have agreed to support a plan to send a military medical unit to join the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 12, and 13 December 2002), Hungarian media reported after multiparty talks on the matter ended on 16 December. Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz said the government will withdraw a motion to send a 40-man guard unit to Kabul, however, as the move is not supported by the opposition. He said political realities must be taken into account, as authorization requires two-thirds support in parliament. Opposition leaders say the cabinet could take the decision on its own but is instead seeking to deflect responsibility, "Nepszabadsag" reported. The governing coalition controls 198 seats in the 385-member legislature. In other news, the government is planning to submit to parliament a proposal to endorse a U.S. request to train Iraqi opposition personnel at Taszar military air base in Hungary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 11 December 2002). MSZ

The Hungarian Constitutional Court ruled on 16 December that the text of a decree issued by Interior Minister Monika Lamperth ahead of October local elections was unconstitutional, Budapest dailies reported. Regional election committees, the National Election Commission, and the Supreme Court had all rejected the right-wing FIDESZ complaints. FIDESZ then took the case to the Constitutional Court. The decree prompted FIDESZ to claim election fraud and demand that Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy fire Lamperth. Lamperth's decree specified that the emblems and logos of nominating organizations and parties must be portrayed on voting ballots in a 20-millimeter circle. FIDESZ complained that those specifications favored the ruling Socialist Party, since its party emblem would appear larger than that of FIDESZ due to its shape. MSZ

FIDESZ deputy Zsolt Nemeth, chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, on 16 December rejected recent critical remarks by EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen concerning the Hungarian Status Law. Nemeth said the wavering and "hesitant conduct" of the government is the main reason the EU does not consider proposed changes to the Status Law acceptable. The legislature is expected to vote on the proposed amendments as soon as this week. Verheugen previously said the European Commission's legal experts admit that some progress has been made in bringing the law into line with EU norms but say the law in its original form was so far from EU expectations that "putting the draft in order" will cause headaches for lawyers of the countries affected. Nemeth insisted it is not true that a special political link has been established between Hungary and ethnic Hungarians abroad by issuing so-called Hungarian certificates, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. MSZ

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the hearing for former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague on 16 December that "a recognition of this court is essential, and what Mrs. Plavsic has done is to plead guilty and recognize the authority of this court. I think that is very important," RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). Albright added that "unimaginable" crimes took place in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war, noting, "There was more systematic effort in terms of getting rid of the non-Serbs" than there was against Serbs. She stressed that part of the function of the tribunal is to provide a deterrent against war crimes being committed in the future. Albright argued that Serbian behavior in the Bosnian conflict cannot be justified on the grounds that systematic atrocities were committed against Serbs during World War II. PM

Albright told the tribunal in The Hague on 16 December that she found Plavsic "a conflicted terms of knowing that she wanted to make sure that Serb interests were protected but, at the same time, understanding the necessity of going through with the Dayton [peace] process, which...she really stood up for in many different ways. But I think she obviously was involved in horrendous things prior to that and then began to see that the Dayton accords were the best way to accomplish what was necessary," RFE/RL reported. Albright added: "I know what I heard, actually, in [Plavsic's] own words, of being a spokesperson for some of the policies that came out of Banja Luka and that represented [the policies of the] Republika Srpska.... I found them repugnant and didn't understand why she would be involved in things like that." PM

Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel said in Ljubljana on 16 December that "many people in Europe expect Slovenia's knowledge, experience, ties, and connections to help the European Union [stabilize] the situation in Southeast Europe," dpa reported. He added that Slovenia will be able to perform this role more effectively once it joins the EU on 1 May 2004. Slovenia's relations with the former Yugoslav republics are complex. On the one hand, it does not want to be linked in foreigners' minds with the Balkans and has been less than generous in its treatment of its minorities from that region. On the other hand, Slovenia has been anxious to recapture its former Yugoslav markets and not appear to the international community to be avoiding responsibility toward its less fortunate neighbors. PM

Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi said in Prishtina on 16 December that Kosova's future will depend on the successful integration of ethnic minorities, Hina reported. He added that 2003 "will be the year of the return of all refugees and their integration. We therefore expect the support of minority communities' leaders." In related news, a UN Security Council delegation held talks about Kosova in Belgrade with Serbian leaders, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The diplomats stressed the importance of launching a dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade. Unnamed aides to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said it is too early to begin talks on the final status of Kosova. Many observers argue that laying down a political road map for Kosova's future is essential to the province's stability. PM

Andrea Angeli, a spokeswoman for the UN mission in Kosova (UNMIK), said in Prishtina on 16 December that authorities have indicted Naser Azemi and Gazmend Zeqiri from the Viti region on four charges relating to their activities as members of a shadowy ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, the Albanian National Army (AKSH), dpa reported. The charges are "terrorism, recruitment for a terrorist group, inciting racial hatred, and illegal possession and procurement of weapons and ammunition." She stressed that the two are "a serious threat to public order in Kosovo and Macedonia." PM

Dragan Marsicanin, vice president of President Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), said in Belgrade on 16 December that his party will press for a vote of no confidence if the government does not begin work on a new constitution for Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

Prime Minister Ivica Racan and his governing coalition have not succeeded in obtaining opposition support for a multiparty National Program aimed at meeting conditions for EU membership, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Zagreb on 16 December. Croatia, which has not been given a date for possible EU admission from Brussels, hopes to join with Romania and Bulgaria, perhaps in 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). PM

President Stipe Mesic had an audience with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican on 16 December, AP reported. The pope told Mesic that he plans to visit four cities in Croatia in May or June, when he will beatify two people. Mesic is in Rome to present the pontiff with this year's Christmas tree for St. Peter's Square. The formal presentation of the 27-meter tree was scheduled for 17 December, Hina reported. Each year, a different country or region donates a large tree for public display in the center of the Vatican. PM

The government decided on 16 December that a concrete action plan for the implementation of the Ohrid peace agreement will be drafted by 23 December, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. The Ohrid peace agreement, which granted Macedonia's Albanian minority greater rights, was signed on 13 August 2001 by the leaders of key political ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian parties, ending the conflict between the ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army (UCK) and the Macedonian security forces. So far, only its most important provisions have been implemented. Some of the laws envisaged in the peace agreement require a two-thirds majority in parliament. However, the nationalist opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) opposes further concessions to the Albanian minority. The leaders of the country's largest political parties, including the VMRO-DPMNE, will meet under the auspices of President Boris Trajkovski on 26 December to discuss implementation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 August 2002 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 and 21 August 2002). The international community has made implementation a precondition for Macedonia's further integration in Euro-Atlantic structures. UB

President Ion Iliescu said on 16 December that no decision on early parliamentary elections is to be expected at his planned meeting with Prime Minister Adrian Nastase on 17 December, RFL/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The leadership of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) on 16 December delegated PSD Chairman Nastase to discuss with Iliescu the PSD's proposal to hold early elections in 2003. Iliescu said he also does not expect a decision on early elections to be made in early January 2003, when he is scheduled to meet with the entire PSD leadership. The president said he considers early elections to be a "subject of secondary importance" and that his meeting with Nastase will focus primarily on the conclusions that stem from the recent NATO Prague summit and Copenhagen EU summit, as well as on economic and social problems and the struggle against corruption and bureaucracy. MS

A first contingent of 60 soldiers from the battalion that will replace the Romanian forces currently serving in Afghanistan within Operation Enduring Freedom left Romania on 16 December, Romanian Radio reported. MS

According to the results of the 2002 census, the Hungarian minority in Romania currently numbers 1.43 million people, Romanian Radio reported. This is a drop of 190,000 compared to the results of the 1992 census. The decline is considered to be partly due to a drop in birth rates and partly to emigration to Hungary. MS

The Prosecutor-General's Office on 16 December officially charged PSD parliamentary deputy Viorel Gheorghiu with fraud, Mediafax reported. Gheorghiu, whose parliamentary immunity was lifted on 1 October, is charged with having staged the theft of his own car to cash in on insurance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May and 2 October 2002). He is to be tried at the Supreme Court. MS

President Vladimir Voronin on 14 December paid a secret visit to Moscow for consultations with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin ahead of his official visit to the United States that was to begin on 17 December, Flux reported on 16 December, citing "sources that request anonymity." The agency said that during the brief visit, Voronin also met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov and with deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov. MS

Valeriu Saharneanu, chairman of the Moldovan Journalists Union, has sent a message to U.S. President George W. Bush in which he draws attention to infringements on the freedom of the media and warns that Moldova's democracy is in danger, Flux reported on 16 December. Saharneanu writes in the message that only a few days before his departure for Washington, President Voronin ordered that the independent Voice of Bessarabia private radio station, of which Saharneanu is director, be closed down, despite the fact that the station is politically independent and has received support from the United States via its embassy in Chisinau. He also claims the Moldovan Audiovisual Coordinating Council is subordinate to the authorities and has been transformed into "the ideological political police" of the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists. Saharneanu also alleges other recent instances of infringements on the freedom of the media. MS

In a letter to the heads of state and governments of current EU members and to Council of Europe officials, President Voronin on 16 December requested that his country receive support for its quest to join the EU, Flux reported. Voronin writes that that joining the organization is now a priority of his administration and draws attention to the fact that a European Integration Commission has recently been set up in Moldova. He says his country should receive the same treatment as other states belonging to the same southeastern European geographic and historical space. Voronin wrote that the only obstacle to Moldova's integration into the EU is Transdniestrian separatism, which is "the source of all negative social phenomena that destabilize the situation in the country." MS

The Constitutional Court ruled on 16 December that a large number of the provisions in the Judicial Reform Act are unconstitutional, reported. According to the ruling, the law unconstitutionally increases the rights of the executive power at the expense of the judiciary, such as the parliamentary control of the judiciary or the rights of the Justice Ministry to interfere in cadre decisions. The court also ruled unconstitutional the provisions regarding the professional hierarchy in the judiciary, and the role of the Supreme Judicial Council. One of the key provisions in the new law, the possibility that the Supreme Judicial Council could move for the lifting of the immunity of the prosecutor-general with one-fifth support, was also ruled unconstitutional. UB

Following the announcement of the Constitutional Court, Justice Minister Anton Stankov of the National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) said on 16 December that his party has decided to call for a national referendum on the judicial reform, "Sega" reported. Stankov said he hopes that the referendum can be held in the spring of 2003, adding that the possible answers in the referendum will be either "yes" or "no" to the judicial reform. Nadezhda Mihailova of the conservative opposition United Democratic Forces (ODS) said the court's decision means that 500 days of work have been wasted and demanded constitutional amendments relating to judicial reform, noting that the ODS warned during the parliamentary debate that the provisions in the Judicial Reform Act were unconstitutional. Lyuben Kornezov of the opposition Socialist Party said the court's decision to halt the judicial reform is the result of the battle between the executive and the judiciary for predominance over the courts, the prosecutors offices, and the magistrates. UB

President Georgi Parvanov announced on 16 December that he has vetoed the law on the Financial Supervision Commission, BTA reported. According to an official press release, the law "encourages an unacceptable legislative trend of limiting judicial control over administrative acts." The president said the law means that acts of the Financial Supervision Commission and its bodies cannot be appealed, "including acts revoking licenses for operation of financial institutions subject to control by the commission." He added that such a situation "runs counter to the principles of the rule of law, democracy, and the right to protection for every citizen, which are enshrined in the constitution." "[Bulgaria] would not be governed by the rule of law if every parliamentary majority, guided by its narrow partisan interests, denied judicial appeal of acts of the executive branch of government with every new law," the president's reasoning stated. The ruling majority signaled that it will vote down the presidential veto. UB


Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 27 November took place a day after the United States banned the Belarusian leader from entering the country, citing "the erosion of human rights and democratic principles" in Belarus. The U.S. move followed the decision of 14 European Union countries -- all member states except Portugal -- a week earlier to impose a travel ban on Lukashenka for his administration's human rights abuses. Considering as well the Czech denial of a visa to Lukashenka to prevent him from participating in the NATO summit in Prague on 21-22 November, the West has sent a powerful signal to Minsk that it prefers to refrain from dealing with the man often referred to as "Europe's last dictator."

Against this international background, Putin's invitation to Lukashenka to visit Moscow seemed like the extension of a helping hand to a friend and ally. However, this meeting just highlighted the stark truth that Lukashenka has found himself in a really tight corner and is now almost fully dependent on Russia's support not only for Belarus's economy but also in the international arena.

The Putin-Lukashenka meeting contributed little substance to bilateral relations, judging by what the two leaders imparted to the media. The only specific decision made was to approve the new composition of the intergovernmental commission drafting a constitutional act for the Russia-Belarus Union. Since Putin clearly suggested earlier this year that the Kremlin sees Russian-Belarusian integration as the political incorporation of Belarus into the Russian Federation or, alternatively, the economic absorption of the smaller country by the larger one according to an "EU model," the decision to continue efforts to develop the "Yeltsin model" of integration seems a bit contradictory.

Many Belarusian commentators assert, however, that it does not matter which team of governmental experts will be busy twiddling their thumbs over the constitutional act. According to these commentators, the Lukashenka-Yeltsin idea of building the Russia-Belarus Union as a suprastate with supranational governing bodies is dead forever. Putin's Kremlin has apparently set a course toward full economic control over Belarus.

Putin told journalists that 80 percent of his talks with Lukashenka was devoted to economic issues. Again, little substance was communicated to the media. Putin said the Kremlin is aware of Belarus's demand for energy resources, including natural gas, and declared that Russia will continue to meet this demand. But the Russian president was quick to add that the price for Russia gas supplies to Belarus is a "commercial" issue that was not discussed during the talks. According to both Russian and Belarusian commentators, this pronouncement means Lukashenka failed to persuade Putin to have Gazprom continue to supply gas to Belarus at heavily subsidized prices beyond the 10 billion cubic meters set by an intergovernmental agreement earlier this year.

"Russia has given away so much during the past decade that now the question is not about giving away something more.... Now we will be taking," Putin told a joint news conference with Lukashenka, in what was interpreted as a clear hint that Moscow's political patronage will now cost Lukashenka a pretty penny.

Shortly before Lukashenka's trip to Moscow, the Belarusian legislature speedily passed a bill excluding Beltranshaz, the operator of Belarus's gas-transport pipelines, from the list of enterprises not subject to privatization. The bill is the Belarusian government's move to fulfill its earlier promise to remove obstacles to the planned sale of a stake in Beltranshaz to Gazprom. Gazprom reportedly expects to get a 25-30 percent stake in Beltranshaz as compensation for Belarus's gas debts. However, the Belarusian government expects Gazprom to pay cash for its stake in Beltranshaz. Since Gazprom -- by reducing last month its gas supplies to Belarus -- easily compelled the Belarusian government to pay a portion of its gas debt and to offer Beltranshaz for sale, it seems the Russian gas monopoly will also gain the upper hand in the privatization of Beltranshaz without difficulty.

What is not known, however, is the time needed for Russia to take control of Beltranshaz -- and other strategic Belarusian enterprises -- in order to subdue Lukashenka further and to reduce him to the status of a Russian provincial governor. According to former Supreme Soviet Chairman Stanislau Shushkevich, Lukashenka's unusual docility during his meeting with Putin testifies that he has begun seeking the Kremlin's approval for his apparent intention to run for a third term as president. "One should not expect any decency on the part of Moscow on this issue," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Shushkevich as saying.

It is worth noting that during a recent meeting with students in Minsk, Lukashenka hinted that his running for a third term in 2006 is a desirable option. He might succeed in making this option a reality, since Moscow appears to be more interested in making Lukashenka more "docile" in issues of interest for Russian businesses than in expanding democracy in Belarus. While a third term for Lukashenka is still a matter of speculation, one thing already seems clear: Lukashenka's role as the chief unifier of post-Soviet "Slavic lands" has been superseded by one as a trader in his motherland's economic independence.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan told a news conference in Islamabad on 16 December that foreign ministers from Afghanistan's six immediate neighbors -- Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- will meet in Kabul on 22 December to sign a pledge not to interfere in Afghan politics, Reuters reported. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are expected to send observers to Kabul for the signing, and afterward, the noninterference pledge will be submitted to the UN Security Council. BS

Amrollah Salah, head of Afghanistan's second security department, said on 16 December that two Pakistani nationals were detained in Kabul the previous night and handed over to security personnel for questioning, Mashhad's Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran Dari-language service reported. BS

Pakistani and Asian Development Bank officials on 16 December began discussions on the feasibility study for the 1,500-kilometer Trans-Afghan gas-pipeline project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 10 December 2002), Karachi's English-language "Dawn" newspaper reported. The three countries have agreed not to levy any taxes or royalties on activities related to the project or on the transportation and transit of gas, according to "Dawn." They also agree not to "expropriate, requisition, or nationalize any property, assets, or rights of any of the participants of the project," according to the daily. Officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan are scheduled to sign a framework agreement for the pipeline project during a summit meeting in Ashgabat on 26-27 December, "Dawn" reported. BS

Radio Voice of Peace's new transmitter began operating in the Parwan Province city of Jabal os Saraj on 13 December, Mashhad's Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran Dari-language service reported on 14 December. The 500-watt transmitter has a range that exceeds 100 kilometers. The radio station's old transmitter was 200 watts and had a 30-kilometer range. The Voice of Peace transmits in Dari and Pashtu and is affiliated with the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (Northern Alliance). It previously transmitted using equipment donated by the French agency Droit de Parole (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 November 2001). BS

Hamid Karzai arrived in Oslo on 16 December to participate in an international donors conference scheduled for the next day, dpa reported. "I am here primarily to thank Norway for the good efforts it has made as chair of the Afghanistan Support Group (ASG) and I look forward to my visit here," Karzai said upon his arrival. Norwegian International Development Minister Hilde Frafjord Johnson met Karzai at the airport and said Oslo wants to find ways to facilitate the provision of aid to Afghanistan. "This can best be accomplished both by strengthening the public administration and the educational system," Johnson added. He also said that Norway has paid out all the $40 million it promised for Afghanistan's reconstruction for 2002, Reuters reported on 16 December. Officials from 22 countries will participate in the ASG meeting, which will feature discussions on reconstruction and the repatriation of refugees. BS

During a 16 December meeting in Oslo with Norwegian Defense Minister Kristin Krohn Devold, President Karzai asked for Norway's assistance in the establishment of a new army, Oslo's "Vart Land" tabloid reported the same day. Karzai said that the creation of the new Afghan army is going well, and said that "we are looking forward to Norwegian assistance with respect to teaching and training Afghan soldiers and pilots." The Norwegian publication speculated that this would take place when a new Norwegian civilian-military unit is established under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). "Local needs will determine what we will contribute," Krohn Devold said. "It could be everything from building schools and kindergartens to giving instruction to soldiers and the police plus help in establishing local courts," she added. Norwegian special-operations forces have been active combatants in Operation Enduring Freedom (see "Vikings Reach Afghanistan" in "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 March 2002). BS

"Afghan state-run television and radio reported with great delight" news about the closure of the offices of Afghan Hizbullah in Mashhad, IRNA reported on 16 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). An Iranian Foreign Ministry official said earlier that the closures reflect Tehran's support for President Karzai's government. Afghan radio and television also commented favorably on Iran's role in the Bonn conference (presumably the one in 2001) and in providing financial help for the government in Kabul, IRNA reported. BS

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 16 December criticized press reports that the presidential office had provided classified documents to the accused in the current trial of opinion pollsters, IRNA reported. The managing director and members of the board of directors of the Ayandeh Research Institute are being tried on espionage charges in connection with a poll they conducted in coordination with the Washington-based Gallup Organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002). Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi ruled out any connection between the case and either him or the president's office, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 6 December. Abtahi said he met with the presiding judge in the case, Said Mortazavi, and Tehran Province Justice Department chief Abbasali Alizadeh to discuss the allegations. BS

State television quoted Guardians Council member and former judiciary head Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi as saying during the 13 December Friday prayers: "Who has given these secret documents to these people? I do not want to mention names here, but these gentlemen are in possession of some of the most confidential and secret documents of the political system, and they keep these in their homes or offices. Moreover, no one knows how many of these documents they have destroyed, and how many of them they have passed on to foreigners." Yazdi also claimed that sexual issues are involved in the case, but did not elaborate. BS

Iranian Vice President for Atomic Energy Qolam-Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi on 17 December rejected recent U.S. accusations that Iran is trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, Iranian state radio reported. Aqazadeh said that only the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is legally authorized to deal with nuclear issues. The previous day, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Iran does not intend to build nuclear weapons and that all its efforts in the nuclear-energy sphere have peaceful objectives, IRNA reported. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said during a 13 December State Department briefing that the United States has "reached the conclusion that Iran is actively working to develop nuclear-weapons capability." Boucher discussed the construction of a heavy-water facility at Arak and a possible uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 16 December 2002, and "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002). BS

Fifteen semisubmersible gunboats used in special operations have been sent to Iran from North Korea, "The Washington Times" reported on 16 December. The boats were shipped aboard an Iranian freighter. U.S. intelligence officials expressed concern that Iran could use the gunboats to threaten U.S. ships in the region. In an indication of Iran's willingness to use the means at its disposal, Multinational Interdiction Force Deputy Coordinator Commander Nick Chatwin of the British Navy in a 16 December Reuters report displayed a photograph of an oil tanker with a hole in it that was created by a rocket-propelled grenade launched from an Iranian naval vessel. BS

Hassan Zakeri, an official from the Iranian national police's ideological-political department, announced on 16 December that his organization will employ some 4,000 women by March 2003, IRNA reported. "Taking into account religious rules, the society needs to utilize policewomen," Hassan Zakeri said. General Taqizadeh, who heads the Criminal Investigation Department in Tehran, announced several months earlier that a specialized women's unit has been created to maintain security and investigate matters that pertain to women (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 November 2002). BS

In an interview that appeared in the 7 December "Toseh" morning daily, Tehran parliamentarian Jamileh Kadivar, who is a member of the legislature's Women's Group, said there are serious efforts under way to help prostitutes find new occupations. Kadivar said that budgetary allocation for this measure is inadequate right now, and she recommended providing prostitutes with a stipend that will tide them over as they transition to new occupations and financial self-sufficiency. "We must divide special women [prostitutes] into two groups," Kadivar explained. "One group consists of those who turn to prostitution because of lax morality. But there are also other women who fall into that trap because of poverty," according to Kadivar. "Our aim is to help that latter group who have fallen on hard times." There are an estimated 300,000 female prostitutes in Iran, according to IRNA. BS

Parliament on 16 December approved a bill on political crimes after the Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation on Islamic and constitutional grounds, returned a previous version of it, Iranian state television reported. The bill considers it a "political crime" when an individual perpetrates an action or refuses to take an action for political motives that are against the existing political system and against the government's sovereignty, or against the interests or rights of the citizenry. Politically motivated violent crimes would not be considered political crimes according to the new bill, and the court that investigates political crimes would have a jury. BS

Seyyed Mohsen al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said that no Iranian official participated in the 13-15 Iraqi opposition meetings in London, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 16 December. Iran was invited, however, al-Hakim said. "All the neighbors of Iraq and all the Arab, Muslim and European countries, as well as all the countries interested in the Iraqi case had been invited to take part in the conference but only the representatives of the American government and Kuwait's parliament attended the meeting," according to al-Hakim. BS

The London meeting of Iraqi opposition groups (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2002) issued a political declaration on 16 December calling for a "democratic, parliamentary, pluralistic, and federal state" in Iraq, AFP reported the next day. The declaration calls for the participation of all Iraqi ethnic groups in a post-Saddam Hussein government, including the safeguarding of the Turkomen, Chaldean, and Assyrian communities. It recognizes the Kurds' "right to self-determination under international law" and respect for the current autonomous arrangements in Iraqi Kurdistan, AFP reported. The declaration also supports the addition of peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) to a new Iraqi army following liberation. It adds that the Iraqi opposition should play a primary role in ousting the regime and rejects "any form of occupation of, local or foreign military rule in, or foreign mandate over" Iraq, according to AFP. A separate document on the transitional period will call for limiting the interim stage to two years, to be followed by elections. The declaration also called for equality of citizens before the law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, demonstration, and political pluralism, a separation of powers, and Islam as the state religion, "Al-Hayat" reported on 16 December. KR

Addressing the conference, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masud Barzani said democracy has proven to be the "ideal solution" in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the KDP shares power with other groups in a coalition in the Kurdistan Regional Government. "Throughout our lengthy experience, we spread the spirit of tolerance, brotherhood, and coexistence among the Arab, Kurdish, Turkoman, Assyrian, and Chaldean sons of the same homeland," Barzani said. "We always believed that negotiations and dialogue are our only way to solve problems whenever we sense readiness on the part of the central government to accept negotiations and dialogue," he said. Barzani added that it is necessary for Iraqis to put aside their historical differences and work toward a unified Iraq. "The aim is the same, no matter how the interpretations vary," he said. "We should unite our ranks for the sake of the future, instead of making ourselves captive to the past and to its flaws." He added that "we should rise above minor disagreements so that the Iraqis will look to us as competent people in introducing democracy, political pluralism, justice, and equality, and in creating the desired civil society." KR

Iraqi opposition members will release the names of participants to the "Coordination and Follow-up Committee" on 17 December. This key committee will "liaise between the various groups and represent them in talks with world and regional leaders," "The Independent" reported on 16 December. The committee is expected to comprise 50 members and "reflect all components of the Iraqi people," Hamid al-Bayati of the SCIRI told "The Independent." Al-Bayati said Shiite Islamists would have 33 percent of the seats on the committee, while Kurds would get 25 percent, Arabs 66 percent, Turkomen 6 percent, and the Assyrians 3 percent, according to the London daily. KR

Fifty-five UNMOVIC and IAEA inspectors visited 13 sites on 16 December, according to a statement by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. A group of nine IAEA inspectors visited the Hittin State Company, a subsidiary of the Iraqi Military Industrialization Organization (MIA), located 50 kilometers south of Baghdad. Inspectors questioned the general director of the company regarding aluminum pipes manufactured there and conducted a gamma survey of the facilities. They also took a sample of aluminum, the Foreign Ministry stated. Inspectors verified all machines and equipment that were listed in the Iraqi declarations to the UN. The group then proceeded to the Al-Quds State Company, which it inspected on 7 December with UNMOVIC. According to the statement, the inspectors "made general visits to the company's facilities" and took samples of wastewater, drinking water, and soil. Inspectors then traveled to the State Company for Mechanical Industries, a subsidiary of the Industry and Minerals Ministry that is located 50 kilometers south of Baghdad. It specializes in "mechanical industries and the production of tractors and their accessories," according to the Foreign Ministry. Inspectors "visited all the main sites to verify the old and recently imported machines and equipment. It conducted a radiological survey with portable equipment." KR

A second group of three IAEA inspectors on 16 December visited the Sa'd State Company in Karradat Maryam (Baghdad), where they met with the director and "toured all sections, including the administrative, financial, and computer departments, and visited the Al-Rafidayn Bank branch at the site," according to the Foreign Ministry statement. A third group of inspectors returned to the Al-Qaqa Company. The Foreign Ministry did not provide details of the inspection. The group later visited the Al-Musayyab Ammunition Store to inspect 81-millimeter rockets. The Foreign Ministry said the rockets "have a range of 10 km and are fired from rocket launchers" made from aluminum pipes manufactured by the Hittin State Company. The inspectors also returned to the Al-Mutasim Factory to inspect mechanical and assembly workshops. Inspectors then went to the Hittin test range to perform a test launch of an 81-millimeter rocket. KR

An UNMOVIC team of 13 chemical inspectors visited the Al-Nasr al-Azim (Great Victory) Company in Baghdad, which is an affiliate of the MIO. Inspectors checked tagged equipment and toured the company's workshops, vehicles, and various departments, according to the Foreign Ministry. A second team of seven biological inspectors visited Baghdad University's Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Institute in Al-Jadiriyah. The ministry reported that inspectors "asked the dean of the institute about the goals of the institute, even though it has only recently been instituted and has been declared in the latest Iraqi declaration." Inspectors also toured rooms and laboratories at the institute, "photographed the machines, equipment and books found in the library," and checked a computer. Inspectors then returned to the Health Ministry's Serum and Vaccines Institute in Al-Amiriyah to examine "storage-inventory cards." KR

A team of 10 UNMOVIC inspectors visited the Dhat Al-Sawari State Company, which belongs to the Industry and Minerals Ministry and is located 20 kilometers north of Baghdad, to question a company representative and tour "a dairy plant, a pipes plant, a warehouse, and a drinking-water station" at the site. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry noted that "the group interrupted its visit to the site and did not visit the other plants, for the site is within the jurisdiction of the Chemical Team and not the Missile Team." A group of eight inspectors did, however, visit the Sa'd State Company, where they questioned the director-general about the company's activities and its affiliate centers, its budgets, and "the designs it prepares and the parties that benefit from these designs." The group then toured the facility, reviewed documents and drawings, and checked three computers. KR