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Newsline - March 13, 2003

Russian Ambassador to the UN Sergei Lavrov told CNN on 13 March that only UN-authorized international weapons inspectors have the authority to set conditions and deadlines for Iraq's disarmament, ITAR-TASS reported. Asked to comment on a list of disarmament requirements being circulated at the UN by the United States and Great Britain, Lavrov said that under existing UN Security Council resolutions, the weapons inspectors must define the key unsettled disarmament issues and the UN Security Council must consider the Iraqi regime's progress on those issues 120 days after the council has endorsed them. "Thus, we will not support any artificial time frame if it is not set by weapons inspectors and not approved by them," Lavrov said. RC

Igor Ivanov told journalists in Dushanbe on 13 March that Moscow has not yet decided how to vote in the UN Security Council on the new British proposal for inducing Iraq to disarm (see Iraq item in "RFE/RL Newsline III"), Russian news agencies reported. But he added that Russia will vote against any new resolution that "directly or indirectly opens the way to war against Iraq." Ivanov was scheduled to meet on 13 March with Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov and Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov. LF

U.S. President George W. Bush telephoned President Vladimir Putin on 12 March to discuss the Iraq crisis, RTR, ORT, and other Russian news agencies reported. RIA-Novosti cited the Russian president's press office as saying the conversation was part of a process of regular consultations between the two presidents concerning the crisis. The two presidents agreed on the need "to maintain a constant political dialogue," RIA-Novosti quoted the press service as saying. Speaking to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said a Russian veto of the draft U.S.-U.K.-Spanish UN Security Council resolution would strain bilateral relations, but that this situation should not be overdramatized. Lugar on 10 March introduced in the Senate legislation that would repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendments that tie trade relations to emigration rights. RC

Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev and U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham signed agreements in Vienna on 13 March under which Russia will shut down three nuclear reactors in Tomsk Oblast and Krasnoyarsk Krai that produce weapons-grade plutonium, Russian and international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March 2003). In exchange, the United States will provide assistance for the construction of thermoelectric fossil-fuel plants in Seversk and Zhelzhnogorsk to make up for the loss of energy incurred by the closures. "The nuclear reactors will be shut down only after the substituting energy facilities have been commissioned," Rumyantsev said, according to ITAR-TASS. The news service reported that the shutdown will be complete in 2009. Abraham declined to say how much the agreement will cost the United States, but he confirmed that it was included in the $1.3 billion allocated in the current budget for nonproliferation programs, Reuters reported. RC

President Putin's 11 March decision to disband the Federal Agency of Governmental Communications and Information (FAPSI) and to transfer its functions to the Defense Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) could have ramifications for the December State Duma elections and next year's presidential poll, and "Vremya novostei" reported on 12 March. Both publications reported that FAPSI formerly controlled GAS Vybory, the information system the Central Election Commission (TsIK) uses to accumulate data from polling stations during national elections. Earlier media reports have also said that FAPSI designed and maintains the system, although both TsIK and FAPSI have denied these reports. FAPSI spokesman Sergei Popov told "The Moscow Times" on 12 March that "[GAS Vybory] does not even use our communications lines." However, longtime former KGB and FAPSI official Aleksandr Kalinin, who now heads a private research institute called Voskhod, told the daily on 12 March that his institute designed the GAS Vybory system, although he denied that FAPSI was involved. According to the "Vremya novostei" and reports, control over the GAS Vybory system is one of the FAPSI functions that is now being handed over to the FSB. RC

President Putin expressed his dissatisfaction with Russia's law enforcement agencies on 12 March, ORT and other Russian news agencies reported. "An analysis of the situation last year does not give grounds for optimistic conclusions," Putin said at a federal conference of senior law enforcement officers in Moscow. He noted that the Prosecutor-General's Office has reported that the number of reported crimes fell by 15 percent in 2002. But Putin also reported that experts estimate that nearly 40 percent of all crimes in Russia go unreported altogether and that 1.8 million Russians were the victims of crimes last year. "This means that there are criminals still on the loose, still wandering among our citizens," Putin said. The president also mocked official reports submitted by some Russian regions that claim those regions have no problems whatsoever with illegal drugs. "It is hard to imagine that these republics have no drug-related problems. It is impossible," Putin said. Putin named combating terrorism, drug trafficking, and crimes against individuals as law enforcement's top priorities, reported. RC

Speaking at the same conference on 12 March, Vladimir Ustinov called law enforcement's reported successes in combating state corruption "greatly exaggerated," reported. He noted that police have mostly gone after petty corruption, including bribe taking among doctors, educators, and traffic-police officers. Ustinov said experts estimate that Russian officials accept $16 billion in bribes each year and that corruption indirectly causes the economy more than $20 billion in damage per year. RC

The State Duma on 12 March passed a nonbinding resolution asking President Putin to prevent the Culture Ministry from returning to Germany the so-called Baldin Collection of artworks transferred to the Soviet Union following World War II, RosBalt reported. The collection -- which is currently in St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum -- comprises 362 graphical works and two paintings, including works by Rembrandt and Van Dyck. It has been valued by Russian experts at $1.5 billion. The Russian government plans to return the Baldin Collection to the Kunsthalle Bremen museum on 29 March, ITAR-TASS reported on 12 March. The Duma's resolution urges the government to negotiate with Germany and to return the artworks only in exchange for "equivalent compensation." RC

State Duma deputies voted again on 12 March to reject a bill sponsored by the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) that would prohibit regional leaders from seeking more than two terms, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 October 2002). Only 168 of the 226 deputies necessary supported the bill, which would have amended the law on general principles for organizing the legislative and executive organs of federation subjects, according to RosBalt. The Duma passed a similar bill in July 2001; however, the bill was later rejected by the Federation Council and the presidential administration withdrew its support. On 12 March, presidential envoy to the Duma Aleksandr Kotenkov condemned the bill as "violating the constitution and the equality of the federation subjects," RosBalt reported. JAC

Political insiders in Moscow are speculating that President Putin's next significant cadre change will be to make deputy head of the presidential administration Viktor Ivanov the head of the Interior Ministry, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 12 March. Major General Ivanov was reportedly the "architect" of the most recent changes in the government structure announced by President Putin on 11 March, according to the bureau (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). Viktor Ivanov is considered a member of the St. Petersburg clan within the Kremlin and is a former deputy director of the FSB (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 July 2002). The current Interior Minister is Boris Gryzlov, who was recently named to head the Unified Russia party and has been expected to leave his ministerial post to take up party work full-time. RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 12 March that some analysts believe that one reason Putin abolished the Federal Tax Police Service and transferred its functions to the Interior Ministry was to increase Gryzlov's opportunities for making appointments -- a valuable tool for making allies, particularly around election time. JAC

The Federation Council approved on 12 March five of six bills in the legislative package to reform the electricity sector, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. Senators rejected the bill to amend the law "on energy conservation," arguing that they believe the bill would encroach on the rights of regions. Valentin Mezhevich, representative for Irkutsk Oblast, explained earlier that the regions oppose the consolidation of funds for energy conservation at the federal level and believe that the funds should exist at the regional level, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 5 March. Only 85 of the necessary 90 representatives voted in favor of the bill, RosBalt reported. The bills that were passed establish 1 July 2005 as the deadline for completing the reforms. The bill on energy conservation will now go to a conciliatory commission. JAC

The Federation Council on 12 March rejected a bill to amended the Criminal Code to impose harsher penalties for poaching. According to RosBalt, the bill received only 14 votes in favor and 85 against. The bill, which was passed earlier by the State Duma, would have increased the punishment for illegally obtaining fish and sea products from 200 to 500 minimum monthly wages and a jail term of six rather than four months. JAC

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 12 March that the failures of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party have fueled support in Moscow for the St. Petersburg-based Party of Life, which Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov recently joined. According to the daily, which cited only unidentified sources, President Putin recently decided to approve a plan to support the party, and Mironov has a plan to use the resources of the upper legislative chamber for the Party of Life's State Duma campaign. In addition, Federation Council members will be tapped to serve as candidates in the race. A Duma seat is considered more desirable because the job is guaranteed for four years, while a senator may be dismissed at any time, the daily noted. JAC

"Novye izvestiya" acting Editor in Chief Valerii Yakov announced to the newspaper's journalists on 12 March that no investor has been found to take over the daily and that most likely it will be closed down, reported. The daily has not appeared since 28 February following major shareholder Oleg Mitvol's decision to dismiss former Editor in Chief Igor Golembiovskii as the newspaper's general director (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). Yakov said negotiations with Alyans Group head Ziya Bazhaev to purchase the paper have apparently fallen through. The journalists were hoping at the time to be able to find new investors and launch a new daily, possibly with the same name. Yakov told on 12 March that potential investors have been put off by the daily's "spirit of opposition." Yakov said the only way the daily can continue is if self-exiled magnate Boris Berezovskii continues to finance it, and he advised the paper's remaining journalists to seek work elsewhere. RC/JC

Employees of Norilsk Nickel's Arctic division voted on 12 March not to hold a strike at a conference of employees and management held that day, ITAR-TASS reported, citing the company's press service. The conference was organized to resolve a labor dispute that started in October, according to the daily. Union leaders had hoped to be the sole labor representatives at the 12 March conference. However, management convinced workers to bypass the union and elect their own representatives, which prompted union leaders to launch a hunger strike (see "RFE/RL Business Watch," 25 February 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). Vitalii Bobrov, head of Norilsk Nickel's Arctic division, commented on 12 March that the conference's outcome was an indication that "extremism in the trade-union movement, as a method of handling problems, has outlived itself." JAC

The owners of a cafe in Taganrog in Rostov Oblast have hung up a sign in their establishment declaring that they will not serve citizens of the United States or Great Britain in response to these countries' "aggressive policies" and " attempts to violate the UN Charter," reported on 12 March. According to the agency, the cafe's declaration has received a lot of local media coverage, and other businesses in the city, such as the local laundry, have followed suit with their own declarations. JAC

Saratov Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov has ordered all members of the oblast government to observe Lent, reported on 12 March, citing RTR-Vesti. In addition, he decreed that all meat dishes be taken off the menu at the government cafeteria. According to a recent VTsIOM poll, some 77 percent of respondents said they would not alter their diets in any way for Lent. Two years ago, Ayatskov's government issued a document outlining the proper clothing for local bureaucrats. Male bureaucrats were advised to wear a gray, blue, or beige suit with a white or pastel-colored shirt and a silk tie (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 1 August 2001). Last November, "Gazeta" noted that Ayatskov long had poor relations with church officials, but that the two sides patched things up recently. The newspaper argued that the Saratov eparchy needed additional funding, and Ayatskov needed the authority of the church (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2002). JAC

Approximately 50 members of the Yabloko party held a demonstration outside the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow on 12 March to protest Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's repression of the Turkmen opposition, Interfax reported. Vladimir Lukin, deputy speaker of the Yabloko faction in the State Duma, was quoted as telling the demonstrators that the trials of Turkmen oppositionists who were accused of having had a role in the alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov in November 2002 were reminiscent of the Moscow trials of 1937, with one difference: The Moscow show trials were open, while those in Ashgabat were closed. The sister of Boris Shikhmuradov, former Turkmen foreign minister and main defendant in the Ashgabat trials, reportedly told the demonstrators that her brother, imprisoned on a life sentence, is being tortured and is in poor health. BB

In a 13 March article entitled "Everyone steals!" "Nezavisimaya gazeta" cited extracts from a confidential report compiled by acting Chechen Prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko that listed the most egregious cases of embezzlement of funds earmarked for reconstruction of Chechnya's war-shattered infrastructure. Kravchenko calculated the total amount lost or stolen in 2002 at over 128 million rubles ($4.08 million). He also estimated that 700,000 tons of oil is stolen annually. That is equal to almost half of the 1.5 million-ton output in 2002 of the state-controlled oil concern Grozneft. Over 20 billion rubles has been allocated for reconstruction in Chechnya in 2003. On 12 March, State Construction Committee Chairman and former Chechen Premier Nikolai Koshman declared that "there are so many controlling organizations that not a single ruble [allocated for reconstruction in Chechnya] will be misused," according to ITAR-TASS. But Kravchenko's findings indicated that the amount stolen or embezzled in Chechnya increases every year. LF

Security forces in Daghestan have detained 14 of a group of 30 Chechens recruited by field commander Rappani Khalilov to perpetrate terrorist attacks in Daghestan, ITAR-TASS quoted Daghestan's Interior Minister Adilgirei Magomedtagirov as saying on 12 March. Those detained were all Chechens resident in raions of Daghestan that border on Chechnya. Russian security officials have identified Khalilov as the mastermind behind the May 2002 bombing in Kaspiisk that killed 43 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 23 May 2002). LF

Robert Kocharian admitted at a 12 March press conference in Yerevan that "numerous irregularities" occurred during the 5 March presidential runoff ballot, but claimed they did not affect the outcome of the vote, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Defeated opposition candidate Stepan Demirchian has refused to acknowledge the official returns that gave Kocharian 67.44 percent of the vote. Kocharian also said on 12 March that while he regrets the negative assessment of the ballot by international monitors, Armenia is an independent state and its election results do not require the endorsement of any outside authority. Kocharian further accused the opposition of creating a tense and "dangerous" situation that could negatively affect the country's economy as a whole, and the well-being of individual citizens, according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong. LF

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 12 March, U.S. Ambassador John Ordway again said Washington is disappointed that the Armenian presidential elections failed to meet international standards, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. He said the United States had hoped "this election would represent a step in the right direction," noting that a "clean" vote would have put Armenia in a more advantageous position to negotiate a favorable solution to the Karabakh conflict. Ordway added that the United States will not seek to "punish" Armenia in any way but, on the contrary, will continue to work with President Kocharian and to pursue "joint interests" in Armenia. LF

Heidar Aliev has been discharged from the Cleveland Clinic where he underwent surgery 10 days ago and is on his way back to Azerbaijan, Turan reported on 13 March, citing the presidential press office. On 12 March, Aliev held a telephone conversation with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, ITAR-TASS reported. The discussion reportedly focused on bilateral relations and the prospects for future U.S.-Azerbaijani cooperation. LF

Eduard Shevardnadze warned Finance Minister Mirian Gogiashvili at a government session on 12 March that it is imperative the tax-revenue target for the first quarter is met, Caucasus Press reported. On 7 March, the newspaper "Tribuna" quoted an independent economist as saying that tax revenues during the first two months of the year were only 51 percent of what was planned. The tax-revenue target for the first quarter is 151.9 million laris ($69.9 million). LF

Unidentified regional governors warned at a government session on 12 March that the continuing chronic energy shortages could lead to mass disturbances, Caucasus Press reported. But President Shevardnadze responded by inviting those governors who are unable to ensure timely payment for electricity consumed, which would obviate the need for rationing, to resign. Imereti Governor Temur Shashiashvili complained to Caucasus Press before the session that he believes power supplies to the regions are deliberately curtailed to discredit the local leadership even in those cases where bills for past supplies have been paid. LF

The planned 12 March parliament session failed to take place due to the lack of a quorum resulting from the absence of deputies from five opposition factions (the United Democrats, the Movement for Reform, the New Rightists, the Revival Union, and the Union of Traditionalists), Caucasus Press reported. Former parliament speaker and United Democrats leader Zurab Zhvania explained that the failure to attend should not be considered a boycott, but was in fact a gesture of displeasure with the government's reluctance to implement the law on the minimum wage and to raise pensions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 11, and 12 March 2003). LF

Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 12 March that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sees no further need for a permanent representative in Kazakhstan because of the country's achievements in stabilizing its economy, the very favorable forecasts for economic development in the medium- and long-term, and the limited likelihood that IMF credits will be needed in future. A statement issued after a recent IMF mission to Kazakhstan noted that the country's GDP grew by 9.5 percent in 2002, and that an average growth rate of over 10 percent has been maintained for the last three years. The fund expects that good macroeconomic indicators will be maintained in 2003. The IMF office in Kazakhstan is to be run by local staff when the present IMF permanent representative leaves in August. BB

Almaty Oblast Prosecutor Dzhaksylyk Baytukbaev told a news conference in Almaty on 12 March that there were no political motives behind the rape charge on which independent journalist Sergei Duvanov was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003). Supporters of the journalist, who insists he is not guilty, assert that he was charged with a criminal act as a means of silencing the independent media in Kazakhstan. Baytukbaev claimed expert examinations carried out by the court confirmed Duvanov's guilt, but the defense lawyers had sought to discredit the findings. A higher court strengthened the charge against Duvanov from simple rape to knowingly raping a minor, but left the sentence intact. According to Baytukbaev, this was a humane act. The mother of the alleged victim and her lawyers complained at the news conference that Duvanov's sentence had not been increased and said they were considering filing a civil suit. BB

Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmagambetov appointed Deputy Energy Minister Uzakbay Karabalin on 12 March to succeed Lyazzat Kiinov as head of the national oil company Kazmunaygaz, reported. Karabalin, 54, is a graduate of the Moscow Oil Institute and has previously worked in government and as head of KazakhOil and KazTransGaz. Kiinov has been named deputy energy minister and will monitor the performance of Kazmunaygaz. Tasmagambetov on 12 March positively assessed the work of Kazmunaygaz, noting that over the past year oil extraction has increased by 13 percent while costs have been lowered. Kiinov has headed Kazmunaygaz since it was created last year by merging KazakhOil and KazTransGaz (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2002). LF

In his annual report on the state of the country, President Askar Akaev on 12 March told a joint session of parliament that the new version of Kyrgyzstan's constitution is a safeguard for human rights and the democratic process, and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. He said the revised constitution provides the necessary basis for the country's further development because it strengthens the democratic basis of Kyrgyz society and ensures the priority of human rights; more opportunities for democratic institutions, such as political parties; more independence for the judicial system; and a clearer separation of powers. The president added that local government must be strengthened, that further reform of the court system be undertaken, and that the role of law enforcement be reconsideration. As part of the Poverty Reduction Program, Akaev called for the introduction of a tax on real estate. The Kyrgyz opposition reportedly reacted to Akaev's speech by distributing a statement calling for his resignation because of irregularities in the process of constitutional reform. In particular, they consider the 2 February referendum on the revised constitution so flawed as to be invalid and say the government persecutes the independent press. BB

Kyrgyz Border Service head Kalmurat Sadiev said at a meeting of the Council of CIS Border Troops on 12 March that Kyrgyzstan will start patrolling its border with Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported. He said the decision does not indicate mistrust of its neighboring country and that the task of the mobile border detachments will be to intercept illegal migrants, international terrorists, and contraband goods. Sadiev also reportedly stated that Kyrgyz border troops will remove mines that Uzbekistan placed on Kyrgyz territory in 1999. A number of border-troops commanders did not attend the one-day meeting, including those of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. BB

Social Democratic Party head Rahmatillo Zoirov told Asia Plus-Blitz on 12 March that proposed amendments to the country's constitution should include a mechanism for establishing a balance of powers. At present, he said, the executive power dominates over the legislative and judicial branches, so it is necessary to strengthen the legislative power and ensure the independence of the judiciary. He also called for decentralization of both political and economic powers and for more independence for regional governments, which, he said, should be elected rather than appointed by Dushanbe. All issues except those of national significance should be under the jurisdiction of local authorities, he added. An intense discussion is under way in Tajikistan on proposed changes to the country's constitution and whether it should be changed at all. BB

An estimated 6,000 people took part in what planners dubbed a "People's March for a Better Life" in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on 12 March, according to the website of organizers Charter-97 ( Demonstrators held banners reading "Stop plundering people," "Lukashenka, feed our kids," and "Reduce taxes and rent," among other things. Organizers of the rally demanded that the government raise salaries and pensions, reduce public-utilities fees, ensure opposition access to radio and television, stop repression, and hold off on conducting any referendum on extending the current presidential term of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Two activists from the human rights group Charter-97, along with another from the Zubr movement, were arrested. Minsk officials had rejected planners' request to hold a march to accompany the demonstration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). AM

The Belarusian State Television and Radio Company (BTRK) plans to launch a new television channel using the capacities of its six regional television stations, BTRK Chairman Yahor Rybakou said on 12 March, according to Belapan. Rybakou said the new channel will broadcast on regional stations' frequencies, mainly those used for re-transmitting Russia's Kultura. "To my mind, the broadcasting of Russian channels [to Belarus] will shrink as fast as national television networks develop," Rybakou added. He said the BTRK plans to spend $500,000 on upgrading its regional stations, and the new television channel is to start broadcasting this fall. AM

Ukrainian opposition leaders plan to continue their anti-presidential protests in May, Yuliya Tymoshenko, the leader of the eponymous opposition bloc in Verkhovna Rada, told UNIAN on 12 March (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 11 March 2003). She said the 9 March rally was a first step in ongoing protests. According to Tymoshenko, the efforts will include a human chain across Ukraine. AM

The oldest member of the Verkhovna Rada, Our Ukraine caucus member Slava Stetsko, died at the age of 83 in Munich, Interfax reported on 12 March. After World War II, Stetsko lived and worked as a journalist in Germany. She returned to Ukraine in 1991 and, until 2000, was a leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (KUN). In 1992, Stetsko became a leader of the party Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists. She was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in each of its last two terms. AM

Responding to a joint request by the boards of the Reform Party and People's Union to exclude the Pro Patria Union from a would-be coalition, Res Publica Chairman Juhan Parts abandoned his plan to include Pro Patria representatives in 12 March talks aimed at forming a government, BNS reported. "Estonia needs a balanced and strong government in which all parties would have equal responsibility," Reform Party Deputy Chairman Meelis Atonen said, adding that this would be impossible in a four-party coalition. Parts said he still favors a larger coalition and sees no reason to exclude Pro Patria, which he said supports similar goals. He noted that within a three-party coalition, Res Publica would have 28 votes versus a total of 32 held by the Reform Party and People's Union; in a four-party coalition, he said, Res Publica and Pro Patria Union would have a combined 35 votes. The coalition talks on 12 March resulted in agreement on the rough text of the political portion of a draft coalition agreement, and six working groups were created to present proposals concerning the 13 topics in the coalition agreement to the next meeting on 17 March. SG

Latvian Deputy Prime Minister and co-Chairman of the Latvian-Russian Intergovernmental Commission Ainars Slesers on 12 March invited Russian counterpart Labor Minister Aleksandr Pochinok to visit Riga, BNS reported. Pochinok accepted the invitation and suggested a date of mid-April. The Latvian side of the commission met on 12 March for the first time since 15 new members were named in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). Slesers expressed the hope that the commission will play a greater role in improving Latvian-Russian relations in the future. He noted that bilateral agreements on air traffic, railway and tourism cooperation, collaboration on social security, and the prevention of double taxation and tax evasion have been prepared for signing. The most heated debates at the meeting concerned improving the border-crossing capacity on the Latvian-Russian border, which is reportedly hampered by Russia's outdated control system, low capacity, and lack of educated personnel. SG

During a 10-minute telephone conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush on 12 March, Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas said a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Iraq would be the best solution, ELTA and BNS reported the next day. Bush reportedly said the United States has always sought a peaceful solution, but unfortunately talks have been long and have not yielded any positive results. He also congratulated Paksas on his election to Lithuania's presidency and expressed the desire for successful personal cooperation in the future. Paksas said the National Defense Council will soon meet to discuss Lithuanian policy on the Iraq crisis and will inform Bush of the results. He also said the recent U.S. decision to confer "functioning market economy" status on Lithuania should foster greater economic cooperation. SG

The participation of Polish forces in any possible military intervention in Iraq would be limited, President Aleksander Kwasniewski announced on 12 March during a briefing of armed-forces personnel in Warsaw, PAP reported. "The ship 'Xawery Czernicki' and servicemen from the Operational Maneuver Response Group [GROM] are present in the area, and we will see whether there will be something else. We are working on various scenarios," Kwasniewski said. "We support the fight against terrorism and disarming Iraq through the most peaceful means and in the least military manner," he added, saying the peaceful options seem very unlikely to produce results. AM

The introduction a new visa regime between Poland and Russia should be postponed until the end of the year, Polish Radio quoted Russian Ambassador to Poland Nikolai Afanasevskii as saying on 12 March. The system envisages visa concessions for children, youths, those visiting relative's graves, and residents of the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave. Afanasevskii said an agreement will not be possible before 1 July and a transition period is needed to allow the respective parliaments to ratify intergovernmental agreements. Should Poland reject this proposal, Russia will introduce standard visas for Poles that will cost $35 and not include concessions or privileges, Afanasevskii added. AM

Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla on 13 March requested that President Vaclav Klaus dismiss Industry and Trade Minister Jiri Rusnok, CTK and dpa reported. Rusnok, a finance minister in the former cabinet headed by ex-Premier Milos Zeman, was close to the former head of government and a strong supporter of Zeman's failed presidential bid. He was also said to be among the four Social Democratic Party (CSSD) deputies who refused to back the candidacy of Jan Sokol ahead of the 28 February vote that made Klaus the new head of state. Media reports say Rusnok's replacement is likely to be Jiri Urban, who resigned as CSSD parliamentary group leader after that vote in a move most analysts interpreted as a show of support for Spidla's continuing effort to unite the party. Local media speculate that at least one other minister is likely to be forced out of Spidla's cabinet in what political analyst Michal Klima described as "a warning to [Spidla's] opponents inside the CSSD." A national conference of the CSSD on 28-30 March will elect the party's leadership for the coming year. MS

Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik on 12 March told the Czech Senate's Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee that compulsory military service could be abolished by the end of 2004, two years earlier than planned, CTK reported. Tvrdik was reacting to a proposal in the committee to shorten such service from the current 12 to nine months. Tvrdik called that proposal "a little bit chaotic" and contradictory to army reform plans. He said more rapidly abolishing compulsory service could contribute to professionalizing the army, adding that he will submit a proposal along those lines to the Czech National Security Council within two months. Reacting to the proposal, opposition Civic Democratic Party Deputy Chairman Petr Necas called it "shooting from the hip." "Not long ago, [Tvrdik] said the length of military service should be only gradually shortened until it is fully abolished," Necas remarked. MS

A possible U.S. attack on Iraq is opposed by 71 percent of Czechs, CTK reported on 12 March, citing a public-opinion poll released by the Center for Public Opinion Research (CVVM). Seventy-nine percent oppose an attack without a prior resolution by the UN Security Council, while 12 percent would support military action even in the absence of such a resolution. According to CVVM, support among Czechs for a possible attack on Iraq has steadily fallen -- from 39 percent last spring to 28 percent in October and 24 percent in January. Only 20 percent believe an attack on Iraq would contribute to reducing international terrorism, while 69 percent are persuaded that it would not. MS

Cabinet ministers decided on 12 March to monitor the growing numbers of Roma who move to the Czech Republic from neighboring Slovakia, CTK reported the next day, citing the daily "Hospodarske noviny." Deputy Premier Petr Mares will oversee the monitoring and report to the government. More than 500 Slovak Roma requested asylum in the Czech Republic in the second half of 2002, and 5,000-20,000 are estimated to have moved in with relatives in the Czech Republic in 2003 without filing such requests. Most are thought to be seeking to escape unemployment and drastic cuts in social benefits in Slovakia. Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said the government decided against approaching Slovak authorities on the matter. "We cannot advise neighboring countries what social policy they should pursue, and we cannot send development aid to a country that is preparing to join the EU," Svoboda said. MS

The cabinet on 12 March decided to propose to President Rudolf Schuster that he dismiss Slovak Intelligence Service Director Vladimir Mitro, CTK reported. Mitro announced his resignation the previous day, and President Schuster said he would accept any government decision. Justice Minister Daniel Lipsic said a successor has not been appointed but, according to CTK, several possibilities were discussed by the cabinet. In a reference to Mitro's controversial appointment of former journalist Peter Toth to head SIS counterespionage efforts, Lipsic said this was the strongest reservation ministers had about the SIS chief's activities. "It is simply impossible for the state to function if the SIS upper management includes a person who is suspected of launching an anonymous complaint against the interior minister," he said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 12 March 2003). MS

The Slovak government on 12 March voted to eliminate an article prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation from the draft of a new Labor Code, CTK reported. Labor Minister Ludovit Kanik told Radio Twist that the passage was eliminated because of opposition from the junior coalition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). Kanik said that the Labor Code is not the most suitable legislation for dealing issues centered on citizens' sexual orientation. KDH parliamentary deputy Pavol Minarik said that "equality must be based on nature." The decision to eliminate the article was taken despite a warning issued the same day by Odile Quintin, the European Commission's general director for employment and social affairs. She said the new Slovak Labor Code must include protection against discrimination based on employees' sexual orientation. MS

Slovak Education Minister Martin Fronc announced after the cabinet meeting on 12 March that the Hungarian-language Janos Selye University will be inaugurated in Komarno in September 2004, in line with the coalition agreement. TASR reported. The university must first receive accreditation, and parliament must then approve the proposal. MS

The Hungarian Foreign Ministry on 12 March decided to evacuate all personnel from the Hungarian Embassy in Baghdad, "Magyar Nemzet" reported the next day. Ministry spokesman Tamas Toth said only two Hungarians remained at the embassy following a partial evacuation in late February, and those two recently left the embassy and will not return to Iraq for the time being. MSZ

Parliamentary speaker and acting Serbian President Natasa Micic, acting on a proposal from the government, declared a state of emergency within hours of the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic on 12 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003), Tanjug and international news agencies reported. The move suspends a number of rights guaranteed by the Serbian Constitution, while the army took over some responsibilities from police and the Interior Ministry. Micic called the assassination "an attack on the country's constitutional order and the worst crime against security," according to RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. UB

Heavily armed police were patrolling Belgrade and a number of buses and trains were stopped in the wake of Djindjic's assassination on 12 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported the same day. Belgrade's international airport halted flights, and controls on the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro's border were stepped up, Tanjug reported. Radio B92 reported that traffic in Belgrade came to a virtual standstill as police stopped and searched cars throughout the city and on bridges spanning the Danube and the Sava rivers. The Supreme Defense Council of Serbia and Montenegro, which is in charge of the armed forces in the new loose confederation, announced that it ordered the army into a state of increased combat readiness. Domestic and international media reported that police arrested three people immediately after the assassination, but no details were provided. UB

The Serbian government on 12 March ordered three days of national mourning for Djindjic, while citizens began laying flowers and lighting candles outside the government building where Djindjic was gunned down earlier in the day, Tanjug reported. The parliament of the Republika Srpska in neighboring Bosnia also ordered a day of national mourning, according to Tanjug. UB

The Serbian government in a 12 March statement accused a notorious Belgrade criminal group of responsibility for Djindjic's assassination, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The so-called Zemun clan, named after a Belgrade suburb, is reportedly headed by former special-police commander Milorad Lukovic. Djindjic's cabinet expected to sign warrants for the arrests of former "Red Beret" Lukovic and other leaders of the Zemun gang later in the day on 12 March, according to a government statement cited by "The New York Times" on 13 March. The Zemun gang was believed to be behind a number of attacks on Serbian politicians, including murder attempts on opposition politician Vuk Draskovic and the abduction and murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August and 11 December 2002). In its statement, the government said it believes the Zemun group was also involved in the 21 February car crash that Djindjic later characterized as an attempt on his life. UB

The leadership of the governing coalition Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) on 12 March called Djindjic's assassination a "declaration of war on democracy and the democratic institutions in Serbia," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a former ally of Djindjic and head of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), said one cannot distinguish between "good" and "bad" criminals, adding that crime has penetrated all spheres of Serbian society. Kostunica's statement might be interpreted by some as an allusion to allegations that Djindjic had contacts with organized-crime structures within Serbia's security forces. Those allegations surfaced after police nonintervention during anti-Milosevic protests in 2000. Djindjic was sworn in as prime minister on 25 January 2001 following elections. UB

Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Kovac on 13 March dismissed a proposal from Kostunica's DSS to form a "concentrated government" in the wake of the Djindjic assassination, Tanjug reported. "I do not believe that the [governing] Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) will accept this proposal," Kovac said, adding that the goal would be difficult to realize. The DSS was a member of the DOS coalition before it left in June 2002 after months of infighting. UB

Political leaders throughout Southeastern Europe on 12 March condemned the killing of Prime Minister Djindjic and expressed their hope that his death will not result in a halt to reforms in Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic called Djindjic a personal friend and the "personification of the new, reform-oriented, democratic Serbia." Montenegro's acting President Filip Vujanovic expressed the hope that progressive forces in Serbia will be able to unite and continue Djindjic's reform efforts. Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan and President Stipe Mesic predicted that Djindjic's death will slow Serbia's ongoing transition to democracy. Sulejman Tihic, a member of the joint Bosnian Presidency, said he fears the murder could destablize Serbia and the whole region. The Macedonian government said Djindjic was the "personification and upholder of reforms in Serbia." The government of the UN-administered province of Kosova condemned the crime as a "cowardly act," while the Albanian government lauded Djindjic's role in removing former President Slobodan Milosevic from power. UB

European Commission President Romano Prodi pledged in a 12 March press release following news of the Djindjic assassination that the EU will continue to support reform efforts in Serbia. "During this transitional phase of the country's history, the European Commission stands by Serbia's side and it will continue to do so in the future, just as it will keep doing all it can to ease a reform process that is still under attack from violent antidemocratic and anti-liberal forces. The death of Zoran Djindjic will not affect our resolve to support Serbia in its efforts to join the rest of the European family," Prodi said. EU Commissioner for Foreign Policy Chris Patten and the EU's foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana were expected to visit Belgrade on 13 March to help the government overcome the current crisis, Tanjug reported. Djindjic's killing marks the first assassination of a European prime minister since Sweden's Olof Palme was gunned down in 1986, international media noted. UB

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an official statement on 12 March that he was shocked and saddened by Djindjic's assassination. "Prime Minister Djindjic's fearless leadership was instrumental in ending the terrible and despotic regime of Slobodan Milosevic and peacefully restoring democratic rule," the statement said. It added: "His courageous decision to transfer Milosevic to The Hague to stand trial for his alleged war crimes played a crucial role in helping Serbia come to terms with and move beyond its recent past. He promoted the economic and political reforms necessary for Serbia's integration into Europe and spoke out against extremism in all forms. He courageously initiated a public campaign to combat organized crime, which threatens every institution in Serbian society." Powell added, "The United States remains committed to helping Serbia undertake the economic and democratic reforms that will lead it toward a brighter and more prosperous future within Europe." UB

Iraqi Ambassador to Romania Saad Hamid Majid claimed on 12 March that a member of one of Romania's intelligence services has attempted to recruit him, Mediafax and Reuters reported. Majid said he was approached when attending a meeting with Romanian Foreign Ministry officials on 10 March. He said the meeting with a Romanian diplomat was attended by a third person and that when he was briefly left alone with that person a proposal was made for him to collaborate in exchange for "funding and appropriate conditions" for himself and his family. Majid said he emphatically rejected the offer, adding that he could never betray his country, which he described as "the cradle of civilization." Romanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Cosmin Dobran countered that Majid is attempting to "deflect attention from the real problem," which is the activities in Romania of Iraqi citizens who have since been expelled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 12 March 2003), and dismissed Majid's statement as "propaganda." Dobran did, however, acknowledge that a "representative of another institution" attended the meeting with Majid at the Foreign Ministry's invitation. MS

Representatives of several large trade unions announced on 12 March that union members will stop work for five minutes at noon on 14 March to protest the possibility that a war on Iraq might be launched without the backing of the UN Security Council, Mediafax reported. The strike decision follows an appeal initiated by the European Federation of Trade Unions. MS

Cluj Mayor Gheorghe Funar on 12 March alerted several parliamentary committees, including the parliamentary committee in charge of supervising the activities of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI), that Reformed Bishop Laszlo Toekes intends to hold a gathering of his followers in Cluj on 14 March, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). Funar told journalists that the gathering would be a "threat to national security," and that creating a parliament of the Hungarian minority in Romania as Toekes hopes to do would violate the constitution. MS

Former Senator Constantin Ticu-Dumitrescu said after a meeting on 12 March with Social Democratic Party parliamentary group Chairman Ion Solcanu that "under certain conditions" he would agree to be the new chairman of the College of the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (CNSAS), RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Among those conditions, he listed the full transfer of the communist secret police's archives from the SRI's custody to the CNSAS; noninterference in CNSAS activities on the part of the SRI, the parliamentary committee supervising SRI activity, or the Foreign Intelligence Service; representation of a member of the Association of Former Political Prisoners (of which Dumitrescu is chairman) on the college; and the elimination from the law on the CNSAS of the provision prohibiting members of political parties from serving on the college. He nevertheless said he would be ready to leave the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic "for the sake of de-conspiring the Securitate." MS

Council of Europe rapporteur on Moldova Josette Durrieu said in Chisinau on 12 March that the council backs the OSCE plan for Moldova's federalization, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. She called President Vladimir Voronin's proposal to work out a new constitution in cooperation with Transdniester representatives "a courageous initiative." Durrieu also expressed support for Moldova's efforts to secure its border with Ukraine in order to prevent smuggling from Transdniester. Durrieu said that she and her fellow rapporteur on Moldova, Lauri Vahtre, noted during their recent visit to Chisinau an improvement both in regard to respect for democratic norms and in the country's social and economic development. MS

Russian Ambassador to Moldova Pavel Petrovskii said on 12 March that some provisions in the new draft Chechen constitution may be relevant to President Voronin's initiative to work out a new Moldovan basic document together with Transdniester, which would stipulate that the country is a federation, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The Chechen constitution is to be approved in a referendum on 23 March. Petrovskii said that the new Chechen basic document stipulates that "sovereignty is exclusively a competence of the Chechen Republic, not one of the Russian Federation." He said that the Chechen experience in drafting the new basic document might be useful in the process of elaborating Moldova's new constitution. MS

Petrovskii also said on 12 March that after the Tiraspol Supreme Soviet recently decided to cease obstructing the withdrawal of Russian military equipment from Transdniester, the process can now go ahead at full speed, Infotag reported. He said the first train with 38 freight cars loaded with various equipment will leave Tiraspol on 14 March, and the first train loaded with ammunition will probably leave next week. He said this is the first time the separatist authorities have not set conditions for the withdrawal of military hardware, but that he does not rule out the possibility that Tiraspol may again demand compensation for doing so at a later date. MS

Bulgaria's government on 12 March strongly condemned the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Djindjic, BTA reported. "He was well-known as an energetic and untiring politician, a consistent supporter and driving factor of the democratic processes in Serbia and Montenegro," an official statement read by Foreign Ministry spokesman Lyubomir Todorov said. The government's official website published a telegram to Natasa Micic, the parliamentary speaker of the Serbian parliament, who also acts as Serbian president. In the telegram, Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski hailed his slain Serbian counterpart as a "politician who headed Serbia in the most difficult moments, and whose personality the Serbian public linked with the hope for radical democratic reforms." Bulgaria, which is a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, also initiated a declaration to the council condemning the killing. UB

Opposition Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev on 12 March urged the government to change its position on Iraq -- saying Bulgaria must try to find a balance between its relations with the United States and those it has with the European Union and the Arab world -- so the Bulgarian people will not have to bear the results of an "irresponsible policy," reported. Stanishev said the government has not done enough avert possible economic repercussions and the risk of terrorist attacks on Bulgaria in the event of an Iraq war. He warned that, should the government fail to respond to his criticisms, the BSP-led Coalition for Bulgaria is prepared to take more radical measures, but he did not specify what these might be (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 12 March 2003). UB

In a letter to Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, Sayf al-Islam Ghadaffi, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi, called on the Bulgarian government to reconsider supporting the United States on the Iraq question, BTA reported on 12 March. Parts of the letter, the existence of which was confirmed by the Foreign Ministry, were published by the daily "24 Chasa." It read: "Dear friend Solomon, setting aside your concern about the fate of the Bulgarian health professionals [facing trial in Libya for allegedly having infected Libyan children with HIV], I cannot but voice our deeper concern about the threat of war impending over the Iraqi people.... We believe that you will reconsider your position regarding the war and will join the group of countries that reject the war and call for a peaceful solution to the problem." UB

U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria James Pardew told journalists in Burgas on 12 March that the U.S. Army has inspected the Ravnets military air base as a possible second air base in Bulgaria, "Standart" reported. Pardew dismissed fears that a possible operation in Iraq could affect tourism on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Pardew said in reference to recent protests by women from a housing area neighboring the Sarafovo air base near Burgas, that in the event of a war, Burgas is as endangered as every other city around the world (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February and 11 March 2003). UB

With parliamentary elections a matter of months away, it can have come as no great surprise to followers of Russian party politics when, at the end of January, moves toward closer cooperation between Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) came to an end. Just as in 1995, when acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's ailing Russia's Democratic Choice unsuccessfully sought a coalition with Grigorii Yavlinskii's Yabloko faction, and in 1999, when an unofficial nonaggression pact between Yabloko and the newly formed SPS bloc failed to prevent an outbreak of hostilities between the parties' leaders, Russia's liberals appear to have shown their singular inability to come together in any meaningful sense.

Although the two parties agreed last July to coordinate the nomination of candidates in single-mandate districts, renewed conflict broke out in November when the Yabloko Duma faction refused to support an SPS initiative to form a parliamentary commission to investigate the 23-26 October Moscow-theater hostage crisis (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 6 November 2002). SPS's chagrin might have been partly fuelled by President Vladimir Putin's effusive gratitude to Yavlinskii for his part in negotiations with the hostage takers and Yavlinskii's equally public snubbing of the SPS leadership for its role in the crisis.

It was in this context of cool interparty relations that SPS leader Boris Nemtsov requested a meeting with the Yabloko leadership to be held on 29 January to discuss electoral cooperation. Days before the meeting, however, Nemtsov's proposals for an SPS-Yabloko alliance were leaked to the media. Nemtsov proposed that the parties should contest the December State Duma elections together with a unified party list. Nemtsov himself was to head the list, with Yavlinskii second, and SPS's Irina Khakamada third. In return, Yavlinskii would be the sole liberal-reformist presidential candidate in 2004. Reports further suggested that Nemtsov had agreed that Unified Energy Systems head Anatolii Chubais -- the Yabloko leader's bete noire -- would take no part in the campaign, although the SPS leader later refuted this claim. In any event, the offer of such a sacrifice might have proved insufficient, since Yabloko had already publicly stated that the party could not work with SPS as long as Chubais, Gaidar, and presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko remained within SPS's ranks.

In an open letter to Nemtsov and Khakamada, Yavlinskii and Yabloko Vice Chairman Sergei Ivanenko rejected Nemtsov's proposals outright and declined to attend the meeting. However, they did express a desire to reach agreement on "mutual politically correct behavior" during the Duma and presidential campaigns and reiterated Yabloko's commitment to the coordination of single-mandate candidates. Yavlinskii and Ivanenko pointedly noted that SPS had yet to sign up to the creation of the Yabloko-inspired New Democratic Coalition and its 20 Principles Charter platform. The charter was presented in January by Yabloko's Sergei Mitrokhin to the All-Russia Democratic Assembly, a loose coalition of democratic parties and social movements that has been very much Yabloko's own project since its inception in 2001. The attack in the charter on "those who supported the war in Chechnya, conducted crime-inspiring privatization, created state-owned financial pyramids, and conducted self-interested defaults" -- thinly-veiled attacks on Chubais, Gaidar, and Kirienko -- might explain SPS's reluctance to sign up.

Following Yabloko's rejection of Nemtsov's plan, SPS representatives have been in a somber mood, suggesting that this was the final effort to bring the two parties together and hinting that even cooperation in the single-mandate districts is no longer a foregone conclusion. In contrast, Ivanenko has downplayed the significance of recent events, stating in an Ekho Moskvy interview that an alliance with SPS was never on the agenda and that, by appealing to their different social bases, both parties are capable of passing the 5 percent threshold in December.

Historically, SPS has always been more supportive of a closer union, playing down the differences between the parties and suggesting that throughout Yavlinskii's career, his personality and ambitions have prevented him from forging closer alliances. Yabloko, meanwhile, has consistently argued that the ideological divisions between its brand of social liberalism and the more classic, economic liberalism of SPS (and of Gaidar's parties before it) have prevented a merger. In this sense, the latest events can be seen as another skirmish in a long history of disagreements and mutual suspicion between these two strands of Russian liberalism. However, Nemtsov's proposals hardly came at the most opportune time, as relations between the parties were still delicate after the theater-siege fallout. This raises two important questions: How realistic was Nemtsov's offer, and which party stood to benefit most from an effective electoral merger?

While the impetus for forming a coalition since the 1999 Duma elections has come from SPS, the sincerity of such proposals is open to question. Likely, the initiatives owe as much to tactical considerations as to strategic ones. Nemtsov has not always seen an alliance as the ultimate goal, referring in SPS's better days to the relationship between Yabloko and SPS as a "Darwinian struggle." Nemtsov's latest overtures to Yavlinskii's party can, therefore, be seen as part of a long-term strategy aimed at portraying SPS as the "reasonable, accommodating" liberals in contrast to the stubborn and uncooperative Yabloko, which Nemtsov seeks to portray as consistently refusing to unite for the greater good of the liberal movement. Nemtsov is fully aware of Yavlinskii's reputation as a politician unprepared to get his hands dirty in the world of "real politics" and is more than happy to trade on this to cast Yabloko in a poor light.

For the SPS leadership, the logic behind an alliance with Yabloko is simple. A combined effort should result in a greater share of Duma seats for both factions. Indeed, Nemtsov and Khakamada have suggested in the past that a unified bloc might garner up to 20 percent of the vote. However, opinion polls suggest a much lower figure of around 9 percent. An alliance would not necessarily be guaranteed the total votes of both individual parties. While loyal party voters might well be able to stomach voting for a loose electoral coalition, a unified bloc might not prove as attractive, and a combined Yabloko-SPS could turn out to be less than the sum of its parts. One Yabloko faction deputy suggested last year that few voters are ready to vote for a united party: "There are those who cannot forgive Gaidar for losing all their savings and cannot forgive the leaders of SPS for their support of the Chechen war. SPS also has voters who will never, ever support Yabloko. For them, we are just miserable liberals. It simply does not follow that we will get a larger combined electorate if we unite. It isn't a case of two plus two making four. In our case, two plus two might equal one."

Nemtsov's proposals must also be seen in the context of consistent poll ratings showing his party trailing Yabloko. Recent polls give Yabloko 6-8 percent, with SPS at around 3-4 percent. The relative standings of the two parties might also help explain the swiftness of Yabloko's rejection of the Nemtsov package. Yabloko has, for some months, been in bullish mood, buoyed not only by its poll ratings but also by the presidential vote of confidence for Yavlinskii following the Moscow theater drama and continuing party-membership growth. Yabloko now claims more than 36,000 members.

In contrast, the SPS leadership might have concluded that unification was the only means of ensuring the faction's continued presence in the Duma after December. Given the current relative strengths of the two parties, SPS stood to benefit most from a closer union. Realistically, there was little in the deal to attract Yabloko. It is too early to say whether Yabloko's rejection of SPS's advances will be damaging to Yavlinskii's party. It was, however, noticeable that Yabloko's Ivanenko, rather than Yavlinskii, handled the media coverage on the matter, possibly in an attempt to refute the perennial accusations that it is the Yabloko leader's lack of ability to cooperate with others that has stood in the way of a union of the parties.

Sincere or otherwise, Nemtsov's proposals indicate a shifting balance between the two parties and are reminiscent of Gaidar's 1995 efforts, which came at a time of declining support for Russia's Democratic Choice, to persuade Yavlinskii of the virtues of a coalition. As then, Yabloko's leadership currently has sufficient confidence that its loyal supporters will vote in large enough numbers to enable the party to overcome the 5 percent threshold on its own. There are, however, nine months until the elections, during which time both parties' leaderships will be paying close attention to their respective ratings. A tryst of sorts between Yabloko and SPS should not, therefore, be ruled out completely.

David White is a doctoral candidate and lecturer in Russian politics at the Centre for Russian & East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, following a visit to Kabul on 12 March by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, issued a statement on Iraq saying "the parties [to the bilateral meeting] unanimously called [for resolving] this issue through political means in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1441," Interfax reported the same day. Ivanov met on 12 March with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, along with other senior officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003). AT

Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov said during his Kabul visit on 12 March that there are "sure signs that Russian-Afghan relations are returning to the traditional track of friendship and fruitful, good neighborly cooperation," ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Ivanov added that Russia supported the Afghan people's fight against the Taliban and international terrorism, and is currently "actively supporting" Afghanistan's rehabilitation through economic assistance. At ceremonies held at the newly reconstructed building that used to house the Soviet Embassy in Kabul, Ivanov said, "Russia has returned to Afghanistan with serious and long-term plans," the news agency reported. Some Afghans remain uneasy with a Russian presence in their country after the decade-long (1979-89) Soviet occupation during which more than 1 million Afghans were killed and much of the country destroyed. AT

The UN Economic and Social Council presented a draft resolution on 11 March in which it urges the Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA) to "repeal all legislative and other measures that discriminate against women and girls," the UN Commission on the Status of Women reported. The draft also urges the ATA to "enable women and girls full, equal and effective participation in civil, cultural, economic and political and social life throughout" Afghanistan. The draft calls on the ATA to "improve the practices of law enforcers when dealing with women victims of violence, particularly those accused of offenses based on tradition." The draft also calls for the right of female Afghans to education, the right to own property, and inheritance. Afghanistan on 5 March ratified the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). AT

An Afghan soldier was killed and a U.S. soldier was injured on 12 March when the vehicle they were traveling in triggered a mine in Barikot in eastern Afghanistan, Radio Afghanistan reported the same day. Afghanistan remains one for the most heavily mined countries in the world as a result of mines laid by Soviet troops in the 1980s and by various mujahedin factions during the Afghan civil war. More recently, mines have been used against U.S.-led antiterrorism forces operating in Afghanistan. AT

Thousands of Afghan refugees have started heading home this week, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on its website ( on 11 March, which indicates the start of the "spring repatriation season." More than 1,100 refugees have headed home from Iran "over the last two days" (presumably 9-10 March), and 1,000 refugees have registered at the Katcha Garhi refugee camp in Pakistan. Under what is termed "the facilitated return initiative," Afghan refugees who are going home get between $3 and $30, depending on the distance back to their homes, and inside Afghanistan they can get food and other forms of assistance. The UNHCR plans to help up to 1.2 million Afghans get home from Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia. The UNHCR plans to help 300,000 Afghan internally displaced persons (IDPs). Some Afghan refugees remain concerned about the lack of security, jobs, and shelter in their country, while others may consider returning due to alleviation of the country's drought. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers visited Tehran in the first week of March (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 10 March 2003). BS

Deputy Parliamentary Speaker and Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization leader Mohsen Armin was subjected to tough questioning during an 11 March meeting with students in Hamedan, ISNA reported. Armin rejected suggestions that the reformists should quit the system, saying this would only be a last step agreed to by the majority. "As long as there are legal potentials which we can use, we must stay and use them," he said. "When we see that we have used all the potentials but to no effect, then we must accept that we have no other option [but to leave office]." Armin also rejected suggestions about the incompatibility of religion and democracy, and he compared this with hard-liners' suggestions about the incompatibility of Islam and republicanism. Reacting to complaints about the reformists' weakness and compromises, Armin said, "Reform and the reformists have paid the highest costs and these kinds of recriminations and remonstrations...will produce nothing other than despair, hopelessness, and passivity in the people and, ultimately, their departure from the [political] arena." "Instead of recriminations," he advised, "we must suggest options and solutions to one another." BS

Sanandaj parliamentary representative Bahaedin Adab said recently that in the coming year the inflation rate will surpass 20 percent because of the budget deficit and increases in the price of fuel and other commodities, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 11 March. Adab warned that increasing prices of goods and services without identifying the consequences and impact of such a step will increase the government's problems, and he encouraged the government to submit a plan for targeted subsidies to the legislature. BS

A shark weighing more than 2,000 kilograms was netted on 11 March in the Persian Gulf, according to Musa Bolqar, head of the fisheries department in Dayyer city in Bushehr Province, IRNA reported the next day. Bolqar said the 7-meter shark is of a species normally seen in the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman, although he did not identify the species. BS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 11 March visited the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Navy's Ashura exhibition in Tehran, Iranian state television reported. Khamenei was informed that the three main axes of the IRGC Navy are its vessels, shore-to-sea missiles, and its marines. The exhibit itself featured Ashura, Tariq, Zulfaqar, and Zuljenah vessels and various types of missiles with ranges up to 300 kilometers. During the supreme leader's visit, furthermore, a direct television link was established with the naval bases in Bandar Abbas and Bushehr so he could give the order for the launching of 313 new vessels. IRGC Navy commander Rear Admiral Morteza Safari said the vessels are armed with different types of missile and torpedo launchers and have increased the IRGC Navy's combat capabilities in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman, state radio reported on 12 March. BS

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a 12 March speech to IRGC Navy personnel said, "The Americans, with their 21st-century equipment and with today's slogans, intend to do what the colonialists of the 18th and 19th century did...under the pretext of democracy, under the pretext of human rights, under the pretext of campaign against terrorism," Iranian state television reported. He said people are now aware of their own power and are alert to the American threat, however, so "there is no doubt that the aggressor will get caught in the swamp and this [attack against Iraq] will speed up its collapse." Khamenei warned, "There is no end to the expansionist policies of the aggressor, America, which is today, with the temptation of the Zionists, entering into a situation that is dreadful for mankind." He told the IRGC naval personnel that they must make an extra effort at self-improvement because of the importance of the sea, the coastline, and the islands to Iran's defense. BS

Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani on 12 March described Iran's defenses as "impregnable" and said the armed forces are ready to respond to "any likely threat," state television reported. Shamkhani said the military has the necessary "hardware, religious values, and experience." BS

The United Kingdom on 12 March presented a proposal at the UN Security Council calling on Iraq to meet six new conditions in order to come into compliance with Resolution 1441 and avert war, "The New York Times" reported the same day. The conditions were detailed in a statement by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on the 10 Downing Street website ( They include: a statement by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein admitting that he has concealed weapons of mass destruction but will no longer produce or retain them; the delivery of at least 30 Iraqi scientists and their families abroad for interviews; the surrender of all anthrax or "credible evidence" of its destruction; the destruction of all Al-Sumud 2 missiles; an account of all Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and details of any testing of spraying devices for biological and chemical weapons; and the surrender of all mobile chemical- and biological-production units. Straw stated that the British government still aims to work through the UN, but he added, "It can only damage the UN's authority if the Security Council fails to carry out what it said it would do in [UN Security Council] Resolution 1441. We [Britain] will continue to do all we can to avoid that outcome." KR

France expressed opposition to the British proposal on 13 March, Reuters reported. "It's not a question of giving Iraq a few more days before committing to the use of force. It's about making resolute progress towards peaceful disarmament, as mapped out by [UN weapons] inspections that offer a credible alternative to war," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said of the British plan. Villepin added that the British proposal does not address the questions asked by the international community, noting, "France backs the efforts of all the countries of the Security Council who want to give Iraq a realistic time frame to disarm effectively in line with the spirit of [UN Security Council] Resolution 1441." The French foreign minister said his country supports the efforts of "those who reject the logic of ultimatums and seek to set out a work program and precise timetable for inspections." KR

The UN Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM) announced on 13 March that it has evacuated its UN monitoring force from the Iraqi side of the Iraq-Kuwait demilitarized zone (DMZ), Reuters reported. "Everyone has been removed from the Iraqi side," UN mission spokesman Daljeet Bagga said. "It's just a precautionary step. It's very quiet and calm, but we don't want to be caught unprepared." According to Reuters, UNIKOM announced on 12 March that it had temporarily removed observers from remote parts of the DMZ but said that staff would remain on both sides of the border. RFE/RL reported last week that unidentified individuals -- later deemed to be commercial contractors -- had cut seven large gaps on the Kuwaiti side of the fence that runs along the 200-kilometer border between Iraq and Kuwait (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 March 2003). According to UNIKOM's website (, the observer mission has 1,105 uniformed personnel, comprising 193 military observers and 912 troops. KR

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said in a 12 March briefing that the UNIKOM relocation was part of UNIKOM's "contingency arrangements" to withdraw UNIKOM forces "in the event that the UN Mission becomes unable to carry out its mandate there," according to the UN website ( Asked why the UN has not taken similar action to withdraw UN inspectors from Iraq, Eckhard said: "The border peacekeeping mission is under the direction of the Peacekeeping Department. Mr. [UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission Executive Chairman Hans] Blix and Dr. [International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohammad] al-Baradei have direct responsibility for their inspectors. And the United Nations Security Coordinator has responsibility for the rest. The conditions on the border could be different from those inside.... Mr. Blix has decided that, given the pace of his inspection activities, he does not, at this point, feel he needs to downsize the number of inspectors in the country." KR

An Arab League delegation to Baghdad this week has been canceled, according to a 13 March report by MENA. The delegation was formed following a decision at the Arab League emergency summit last week (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 March 2003) to convey the Arab antiwar position abroad. The delegation had lobbied UN Security Council member states in New York in recent days and was scheduled to meet with Bahraini King Shaykh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in Bahrain on 13 March before heading to Baghdad for a 14 March meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, MENA reported on 11 March. A meeting with President Hussein was scheduled for 15 March. But the Bahrain meeting has now been canceled, MENA reported, and Amr Musa is in the process of contacting "concerned parties" to determine "if the delegation would go to Baghdad." Musa had said in recent days that the purpose of the trip to Baghdad was for delegates to listen to the Iraqi viewpoint and convey the Arab ministers' impressions of their meetings in New York, MENA reported on 11 March. The delegation reportedly did not intend to lobby the Iraqi leadership to step down. The delegation consisted of Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa and the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Tunisia. KR

U.S.-led coalition aircraft continue to drop leaflets over Iraq instructing Iraqi forces and civilians on a variety of topics, according to press releases published in recent days on the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) website ( CENTCOM announced in a 10 March statement that coalition aircraft dropped approximately 900,000 "informational" leaflets over southern Iraq (near Basra) on that day, stating, "The drops were part of an ongoing effort to protect Iraqi lives and deter Iraqi aggression by providing relevant, factual information to both Iraqi civilians and military troops." Eight different leaflets were dropped, with messages including information on coalition radio broadcasts and warnings to troops against using weapons of mass destruction against U.S.-led forces. CENTCOM announced on 12 March that another 120,000 leaflets were dropped in roughly the same area as the 10 March campaign. Coalition forces have dropped millions of leaflets over several areas in southern Iraq since the current leaflet campaign began in October. KR