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Newsline - December 8, 2003

Russian media on 8 December quoted Central Election Commission (TsIK) Aleksandr Veshnyakov as saying that as of 10 a.m., Moscow time, that day and with 90.58 percent of the vote counted, the results of the 7 December State Duma election according to party lists were as follows: Unified Russia -- 36.84 percent; the Communist Party of Russia -- 12.74 percent; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) -- 11.8 percent; the Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc -- 9.02 percent; Yabloko -- 4.3 percent; the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) -- 3.9 percent; and the Agrarian Party -- 3.8 percent. Veshnyakov said that SPS and Yabloko have almost no chance of winning the 5 percent necessary to gain party-list seats in the new Duma, Interfax reported. Turnout, he said, exceeded 55 percent. RIA-Novosti on 8 December quoted TsIK experts as saying that as a result of the party-list voting, Unified Russia could win 117 Duma seats. Dmitrii Oreshkin, director of the Merkator research group, said that when the results from the party lists are added to those from the single-mandate-district races, Unified Russia might win up to 222 seats -- almost half the total of 450. JB

It looks increasingly likely that more than two-thirds of the Duma's seats will be won by parties or blocs "controlled by the presidential administration," reported on 8 December. This would give those parties more than the minimum 300 votes required to amend the constitution. Some observers have speculated that the Kremlin might use such a majority, among other things, to extend the presidential term or to allow President Vladimir Putin to run for a third term, although Putin has said that he would not take such a step. Meanwhile, Unified Russia's Oleg Morozov said on 8 December that it would be "completely logical" for Interior Minister and Unified Russia party leader Boris Gryzlov to become the speaker of the new Duma, reported. JB

Motherland-Patriotic Union co-leader Sergei Glazev said on 8 December that his bloc is ready to cooperate with Unified Russia, particularly on the issue of "land rents" -- that is, state levies on natural resource-extracting companies, RIA-Novosti reported. Glazev also expressed hope that Yabloko would ultimately clear the 5-percent barrier for Duma representation. Motherland's other leader, Dmitrii Rogozin, said his bloc will push to increase social spending, fight corruption, and remove Anatolii Chubais as the head of Unified Energy Systems (EES), Russia's electricity monopoly, Ekho Moskvy reported on 8 December. In the final days of the campaign, Chubais and other SPS leaders said Motherland-Patriotic Union constitutes a "national-socialist" threat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2003). LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii said he hopes his party, which came in third, will have "the most constructive relations" with Unified Russia, but he added: "We don't agree with them on everything. We have a much harsher position." JB

Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov denounced the 7 December elections as fraudulent, Russian and international media reported that day. "You are all taking part in a loathsome show, which is for some reason being called an election," Interfax quoted him as saying on 7 December. "The shameful farce that we are being shown at the moment has nothing in common with democracy." Zyuganov said his party needs at least three to four days to complete its own vote count. Aleksandr Kuvaev, first secretary of the party's Moscow committee, said the party will present evidence of fraud to prosecutors and the TsIK, Interfax reported. Kuvaev said party members have documented "numerous instances of ballot boxes being stuffed at some polling stations, persons who are dead or no longer resident being included in voter lists, and votes of residents of other areas being accepted without documentation, among other things." Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, meanwhile, said his party was subjected to an unprecedented amount of "dirty public relations" during this elections campaign, RBK reported on 8 December. The election results could lead to the creation of a "single-party" system in Russia, Yavlinskii warned. JB

Communist Party leader Zyuganov told RFE/RL on 5 December that because of the large number of bureaucrats and military and security officers incorporated into Unified Russia, the country faces the real danger of a police state. "Unified Russia is not a political bloc, but a kind of commandant's office that smells of a police state," Zyuganov said. "It is headed by two men in uniform [Interior Minister Gryzlov and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu], and includes 56 officials, 29 governors, and a number of ministers, none of whom actually intend to sit in the Duma. They are merely campaigning for unknowns who will occupy their seats in the Duma." He charged that Interior Ministry negligence was to blame for a 24 November Moscow dormitory fire that killed 36 students and for the 5 December explosion of a commuter train that killed 44. Instead of leading his ministry, Gryzlov has been campaigning around the country for Unified Russia, Zyuganov said. Noting that Gryzlov appears in Unified Russia television commercials saying, "I dream of order," Zyuganov said, "[The interior minister's] job is to fight against criminals for order, not to dream about it." VY

Speaking after the 7 December election results became clear, SPS co-leader Chubais said that although his party will not pass the 5 percent hurdle to gain Duma representation, the party will continue to fight against "the threat of the national-socialist trend" embodied by the Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc. According to the BBC, fellow SPS co-leader Irina Khakamada said that after the televised campaign debate on 5 December, Chubais was summoned to the Kremlin and told, "You supported [former Yukos head Mikhail] Khodorkovskii, and now you will get what you deserve." Yabloko leader Yavlinskii told ORT on 7 December that the election results are a direct reflection of the resources spent and the television airtime that parties received during the campaign. VY

Eurasia party leader Aleksandr Dugin has said that he is pleased with the election results, ORT's election website reported on 7 December. Getting four national-patriotic parties into one Duma is a sensation, Dugin said. "Unified Russia is a party of moderate nationalism. Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party is one of ostentatious nationalism. Gennadii Zyuganov's Communist Party is left-patriotic, and Motherland-Patriotic Union is chauvinistic-patriotic," Dugin said. Experimental-Creative Center head Sergei Kurginyan said, "liberals have so often tried to frighten society with 'national-socialism' that it has ceased to be afraid of it and is inclined to embrace some of its values," ORT reported on 7 December. VY

According to preliminary results in a high-profile single-mandate-district race in St. Petersburg, SPS co-leader and former Deputy Duma Speaker Khakamada was badly beaten in St. Petersburg by former Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, 47.32 percent to 20.68 percent, Interfax reported on 8 December. Retired Soviet General Albert Makashov, who helped lead the 1993 rebellion against then-President Boris Yeltsin and who gained notoriety in 1998 for publicly blaming "zhidy" -- a derogatory term for Jews -- for Russia's economic and political problems, won a seat representing a district in Samara Oblast, RosBalt reported on 8 December. JB

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov won a third term with around 75 percent of the vote, 5 percent more than he received in 1999, RIA-Novosti reported on 8 December. National Reserve Bank head Aleksandr Lebedev came in a distant second with 12 percent, reported. Six other governors have apparently won re-election: Moscow Oblast Governor Boris Gromov, Vologda Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Pozgalev, Yaroslavl Oblast Governor Anatolii Lisitsyn, Orenburg Oblast Governor Aleksei Chernyshev, Novosibirsk Oblast Governor Viktor Tolokonskii, and Tambov Oblast Governor Oleg Betin. Gromov, Lisitsyn, and Betin all won more than 75 percent of the vote. JB/RC

Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov won 46 percent of the vote, falling just short of the 50 percent needed to win re-election in one round, Ekho Moskvy reported on 8 December. He will face businessman Sergei Veremeenko, who won 24 percent, in a run-off on 21 December, ITAR-TASS reported. In Yekaterinburg, incumbent Mayor Arkadii Chernetskii came in first with 34 percent of the vote, followed by Sverdlovsk Oblast official Yurii Osintsev, who polled just over 26 percent. Run-off elections will also be held in Sakhalin, Tver, and Kirov oblasts. In Sakhalin Oblast, Deputy Governor Ivan Malakov was leading with 35 percent of the vote, with Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Mayor Fedor Sidorenko polling almost 20 percent, AK&M reported. In Tver Oblast, State Sports Committee Deputy Chairman Dmitrii Zelenin won the first round with 43 percent, with Interregional Foundation for Presidential Programs Chairman Igor Zubov likely to place second with almost 15 percent. Incumbent Governor Vladimir Platov polled 14 percent, according to the preliminary results, AK&M reported. In Kirov Oblast, State Duma Deputy Leonid Shaklein (Russian Regions) polled 34 percent, followed by Unified Russia candidate Oleg Valenchuk with 14 percent. JB/RC

The Foreign Ministry on 5 December summoned British Ambassador to Russia Sir Roderic Lyne and handed him an official protest concerning the 3 December visit of self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii to Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 5 December 2003), RTR and RIA-Novosti reported. Berezovskii, who remains on the Interpol wanted list at Russia's request despite having recently been granted political asylum in the United Kingdom, traveled to Georgia under a false name using a document provided by the British authorities, the Russian protest charged. This action has "undermined" the trust between Russian and Great Britain, the statement said. VY

Former Georgian Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, who is wanted in Georgia in connection with a 1995 assassination attempt against then-parliament speaker Eduard Shevardnadze, told TV-Tsentr on 6 December that Berezovskii traveled to Tbilisi in order to help his long-time business associate Badri Patarkatsishvili. Patarkatsishvili has close ties to Shevardnadze, whose 23 November resignation left Patarkatsishvili in a difficult position, Giorgadze said. Berezovskii went to Tbilisi to provide moral and financial support to his friend, he added. Giorgadze -- whom TV-Tsentr said might be being hidden in a Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) safe house in Russia, Lebanon, or Syria -- also said that he believes Berezovskii promised financial help to the present Georgian leadership (see Transcaucasus and Central Asia below). VY

In an interview published in Britain's "Financial Times" on 5 December, Berezovskii said that he intends to file a $1 billion claim against the Russian government in the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights in connection with Moscow's alleged seizure of his media, mining, and oil-sector assets. Berezovskii said that after he began criticizing President Putin, he was forced to sell his stake in major Russian companies, including ORT, TV-6, and Sibneft. Former oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii has filed a similar suit against the Kremlin with the European Court of Human Rights, and Moscow should expect a similar complaint from former Yukos head Khodorkovskii, the newspaper wrote. VY

In a statement posted on on 5 December, the Foreign Ministry of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria said that the Chechen leadership and the military forces under its control were not responsible for the bombing earlier that day of a Russian passenger train en route from Mineralnye Vody to Kislovodsk, in which 44 people died. The statement stressed that "we do not use the methods of the Russian leadership, which does not differentiate between the civilian population and the military, between legal and illegal means." It said the Chechen leadership condemns any acts of violence against the civilian population anywhere. LF

Pro-Russian Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov denounced the 5 December train bombing in the North Caucasus in a telephone interview with Interfax on 5 December. He said such terrorist acts cannot be staged without "generous funding or planning from a single terrorist center." Kadyrov further argued that neighboring states that fail to prevent the perpetrators of terrorist acts from entering Russia from their territory should be called to account. In that context, he noted that some foreign mercenaries detained in Chechnya were carrying passports with Georgian visas. LF

Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov, who is chairman of the Chechen Central Election Commission, told journalists on 7 December that approximately 70 percent of Chechnya's registered 585,624 voters (including some 40,000 Russian troops) cast their ballots in the Russian State Duma elections by 6 p.m. local time, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. He added that the highest turnout was registered in Grozny. But a Chechenpress journalist told that most Chechens failed to participate in the ballot. He claimed that in three large villages in Urus-Martan only some 80 people voted, mostly members of the pro-Moscow administration and their families, while in a further 17 polling stations he visited he counted a total of 58 people who came to vote. In addition, he cited reports that some polling stations were burned down during the night of 6-7 December, and that unidentified persons opened fire on 60 polling stations in Gudermes, Itum-Kale, Shatoi, Nauri, and Shelkovskii raions. LF

Vartan Oskanian met on 5 December in Brussels on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Armenian news agencies cited by Groong reported. It was their third meeting this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 June and 29 September 2003). Topics discussed included bilateral relations, the situation in the South Caucasus, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian said Oskanian is "satisfied" with the meeting and believes it constituted a small but positive step toward improving relations between the two countries. Mediamax quoted Oskanian as predicting that within the next few months "we will achieve the first small positive result" in the question of opening a land border crossing between Armenia and Turkey. LF

The French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, accompanied by Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov, met in Baku on 5 December with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev to discuss the Karabakh conflict, Russian and Azerbaijani media reported. The U.S. co-chairman, Ambassador Rudolf Perina, told journalists after meeting with Aliyev that the co-chairmen did not bring any new proposals for resolving the conflict, and that the object of the visit was to learn Aliyev's views, Interfax reported. French co-Chairman Henri Jacolin described the Azerbaijani president's stance as "tough," according to ANS TV on 6 December, as cited by Groong. Interfax quoted Aliyev as criticizing the Minsk Group's imputed failure to achieve a solution to the conflict, adding that this failing has undermined Azerbaijanis' trust in the OSCE. But at the same time, Aliyev blamed the failure to resolve the conflict not on the Minsk Group but on Armenia's "unconstructive position." Abiev argued that the conflict cannot be resolved until Armenia is constrained to comply with four UN Security Council resolutions of 1993 calling for a withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territories. ITAR-TASS on 5 December quoted Trubnikov as warning against any attempts to resolve the conflict by force, which Abiev has repeatedly said remains an option. LF

On 6 December, Trubnikov and the Minsk Group co-chairmen met in Yerevan with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, according to ITAR-TASS and Armenian news agencies cited by Groong. Perina said after that meeting that Aliyev and Kocharian have both agreed that a face-to-face meeting between them to discuss resolving the conflict should take place, but he did not specify any time frame for that meeting. Russian co-Chairman Yurii Merzlyakov said the co-chairmen have suggested "new ideas" to the conflicting sides that offer a means of overcoming the impasse created by the Armenian insistence on a "package" peace plan that addresses all contentious issues simultaneously and Baku's preference for resolving contentious issues one at a time (the "stage-by-stage" model). He said the new ideas focus on "combining" the package and stage-by-stage approaches, but did not elaborate. LF

The Minsk Group co-chairmen traveled from Yerevan to Stepanakert, where they met on 7 December with Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), Armenian news agencies reported. Merzlyakov told journalists that while the Minsk Group recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as a party to the conflict, the decision whether to include a representative from the NKR in direct talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan must be made by those two countries. In mid-September, Interfax quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev as saying that Azerbaijan would negotiate directly with the NKR only if Yerevan acknowledged that the conflict is an internal affair of Azerbaijan and opted out of further talks. Akif Nagi, head of the Organization for the Liberation of Karabakh (OLK), on 7 December denounced as a violation of respect for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity the Minsk Group's decision to travel to Karabakh from Yerevan rather than from Baku, according to ANS TV, as cited by Groong. He said by doing so the co-chairmen are trying to "give some kind of legitimacy" to Karabakh's leaders, whom he dubbed "terrorists." The OLK favors a new war to bring the unrecognized NKR back under the Azerbaijani central government's control. LF

Donald Rumsfeld held talks in Tbilisi on 5 December with acting Georgian President Nino Burdjanadze, Minister of State Zurab Zhvania, and presidential candidate Mikhail Saakashvili, Caucasus Press reported. Together with Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze, Rumsfeld also toured the Krtsanisi military base where Georgian commandos are being trained within the framework of the U.S.-funded Train and Equip program. The new Georgian leadership has asked for that program to be extended beyond the original two-year term, which ends in May, and for financial aid to pay military salaries. A U.S. official accompanying Rumsfeld acknowledged that complying with the latter request "is not easy," according to on 6 December. Rumsfeld said Washington is ready to help Georgia in implementing democratic reforms. LF

During his talks with Georgian leaders on 5 December, Rumsfeld underscored Washington's commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity and stressed the need for Russia to comply with its commitment, made at the OSCE Istanbul summit in November 1999, to close all its military bases in Georgia. Meeting in Brussels on 4 December, NATO foreign ministers similarly called on Russia to close its remaining bases in Georgia by early next year, reported. Russian officials say that it will take a minimum of 11 years to do so unless the international community provides funds to build alternative accommodation in Russia for the troops to be pulled out of Georgia. LF

Two senior officials from Georgia's State Border Protection Department have been fired following the controversial visit to Tbilisi on 2-3 December by exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovskii for talks with his friend Badri Patarkatsishvili, Interfax reported. The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal investigation to establish why Berezovskii was not detained at Tbilisi airport, given that he is on Interpol's wanted list. Berezovskii was traveling using a British passport in the name of Platon Elenin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2003). On 8 December, the Georgian newspaper "Rezonansi" claimed, citing unidentified sources, that the real reason for Berezovskii's visit was to offer support to ousted Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, which Shevardnadze refused. LF

Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, who has quit the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia election bloc to establish a new political movement named New Force, traveled on 5 December to Batumi for talks with Adjar Supreme Council leader Aslan Abashidze, Georgian news agencies reported. The two agreed that it is inexpedient to hold elections for a new Georgian president on 4 January, as scheduled. Sarishvili pledged to begin collecting signatures on 8 December to demand that the presidential ballot and the parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for 25 January be postponed for six months. Abashidze also discussed the time frame for the elections with Union of Traditionalists Chairman Akaki Asatiani, who told journalists on 8 December he thinks the presidential ballot should take place on 4 January in accordance with the constitution, but that he is not against postponing the parliamentary election, Caucasus Press reported. No details are available of reported talks in Batumi between Abashidze and the leaders of the Labor and Socialist parties, Shalva Natelashvili and Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, respectively. LF

The Association of Banks of Georgia issued a statement in Tbilisi on 6 December demanding that the government take measures to shield them from "blackmail" and "moral terror," Caucasus Press reported. The plea was triggered by the abduction the previous day of Tamaz Maghlaperidze, co-chairman of the board of the United Georgian Bank. Georgian police announced on 5 December that they have detained a group of persons suspected of involvement in Maghlaperidze's kidnapping. State Security Minister Vakhtang Khaburzania announced on 8 December the arrest in the Pankisi Gorge of a group suspected of kidnapping two Spanish businessmen in December 2001, Caucasus Press reported. Khaburzania noted that the modus operandi in that abduction and those of Maghlaperidze and British consultant Peter Shaw in 2002 are all similar. LF

Speaking to a press conference after a meeting of the presidential Council of Foreign Investors in Almaty on 6 December, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said that he will encourage Kazakh investors to invest in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, because of the rapid development underway there, reported on 8 December. He added that Kazakh legislation should not restrict Kazakh investment outside the country, and noted that already Kazakh investors are active in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 7 December that Nazarbaev reassured the participants in the investors' meeting that changes being made in Kazakhstan's tax legislation -- a tax on oil exports was recently introduced (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 2 December 2003) -- will not affect existing contracts with foreign investors, but will apply only to future contracts. The president also said that he expects the share of domestic investment in Kazakhstan's oil and gas industry to steadily increase. BB

A delegation from Spain's Defense Ministry paid its first-ever official visit to Kazakhstan on 1-5 December, KazInform reported on 6 December. Discussions during the visit focused particularly on Spanish assistance to Kazakhstan in creating a Kazakh navy, in providing advanced training in Spain for Kazakh military officers, and on cooperation in the area of military technology. The Kazakh Defense Ministry has said it intends to have a naval base on the Caspian Sea within 10 years, and the visit of a British Royal Navy delegation focused on this issue, with the British side offering to help Kazakhstan develop a naval doctrine and a curriculum for Kazakhstan's naval institute. BB

In the midst of an ongoing debate over changes to Kyrgyzstan's electoral code, 36 members of the Legislative Assembly, the parliament's lower house, and a handful of upper house members have started collecting signatures from their colleagues in both houses in support of a constitutional amendment requiring that elections be held on the basis of party lists, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 4 December. Parliamentarian Omurbek Tekebaev, a supporter of the initiative, pointed out that the constitution gives the parliament the right to initiate constitutional amendments. A number of political party activists both in and outside parliament have called for elections based on party lists as a means of strengthening the role of political parties in Kyrgyz political culture. BB

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev appointed Temirbek Akmataliev, deputy head of the presidential administration and a former interior minister, to the post of ecology and emergency situations minister on 7 December, KyrgyzInfo reported the following day. The post has been vacant since the election of the previous incumbent, Satvaldy Chyrmashev, as mayor of the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 November 2003). Akmataliev most recently headed a Kyrgyz delegation to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003). The same day the president appointed Tokon Shailieva, until that time head of Bishkek's Pervomai Raion, to the post of acting governor of northern Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul Oblast. BB

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in an interview in "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 5 December that Russia will try to solve the problem of Turkmen treatment of Russian citizens living in that country not only on the bilateral level, but also through the UN, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other international organizations. He said the Russian side is trying to defuse the problems caused by Turkmenistan's unilateral revocation of dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship in April and subsequent allegations in Russia that ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Turkmenistan were being harassed and subjected to discrimination. Ivanov said that talks with the Turkmen authorities are difficult. The Russian foreign minister cautioned that Turkmenistan is a sovereign state and there is a limit to what the Russian authorities can do to protect Russian citizens living there. He also suggested that Russian Ambassador to Ashgabat Andrei Molochkov should have been more balanced in assessing the problems of the Russian citizens in Turkmenistan after the Russian media began reporting extensively on the issue. Some Russian media accused the staff of the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat of being in the pay of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. BB

The Uzbek government prohibited the holding of a conference on 5 December on the use of the death penalty in Uzbekistan, the Moscow news agency Prima-News and reported, quoting conference organizer Tamara Chikunova, head of the nongovernmental organization Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture. Around 100 human rights activists, representatives of international organizations and foreign embassies in Tashkent, religious and legal groups, and journalists were invited to take part in the conference, which was supported by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the British Embassy. International human rights groups in recent months have stepped up their criticism of the use of the death penalty in Uzbekistan, saying that evidence from the population indicates death sentences are subject to the corruption endemic in the Uzbek judicial system. BB

The Free Peasants Party, an opposition group that in recent months has been going through the steps required for registration with the Uzbek authorities, held its constituent congress in Tashkent on 6 December, reported the same day. According to the report, the congress brought together more than 150 participants from various regions of Uzbekistan who elected a Political Council headed by Nigora Hidoyatova, daughter of well-known Uzbek historian Goga Hidoyatov. The congress also designated Babur Malikov, an Uzbek citizen living in the United States, as the party's ideological leader. BB

A proposal to request that the Belarusian Constitutional Court rule on the constitutionality of the recently passed tax code failed to muster the required 56 votes in the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house of parliament, Belapan reported. The motion, sponsored by the Economic Development Promotion legislative group, argued that two articles of the tax code that provide for the extrajudiciary seizure of property for tax violations run counter to Article 44 of the Belarusian Constitution. Article 44 stipulates that property may be confiscated only by court order or "by reason of public need, under the conditions and the procedure specified by law, with timely and full compensation for the value of the confiscated assets." JM

President Leonid Kuchma on 5 December dismissed Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Hayduk, who was responsible in Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet for issues relating to the fuel and energy sector, Interfax reported. Yanukovych attributed Hayduk's dismissal to "many problems [in the fuel and energy sector] that have not been resolved as expeditiously and consistently as was needed." Hayduk's sacking came immediately after he told journalists that "consultants" have concluded that it is inexpedient for Ukraine to pass the management of Ukraine's gas-pipeline network to a joint Ukrainian-Russian consortium. "The issue of a consortium for managing [Ukraine's gas-transport system] has been removed from the agenda," Hayduk said. The intention to set up such a consortium was announced by Moscow and Kyiv last year. Hayduk also said the purchase of stakes in Ukrainian regional power distributors by Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES) recently announced by EES head Anatolii Chubais (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003) is against the law. "We are planning privatization, not the transfer of property from one government to another," Hayduk added, referring to the fact that EES is a Russian state-controlled company. JM

Jaan Ounapuu told a meeting of the ministers and parliamentary deputies of the People's Union that he will resign if the government does not adopt a clear position on administrative reform before the end of the year, BNS reported on 5 December. He told the daily "Postimees" that parliamentary deputies from Res Publica and Reform Party, which make up the ruling coalition alongside People's Union, support the idea of establishing a one-tier local government in which the county governor represents state interests locally. However, according to Ounapuu, the People's Union favors a system under which the county governor would be responsible for the "balanced development of the county" and transforming local government associations into autonomous public-law administrative units. Currently, 10 of the country's 15 counties are run by acting governors on whose appointments Prime Minister Juhan Parts did not consult with Ounapuu. One of the governors also proposed that Estonia follow Finland's example of having the country's president, not the prime minister, appoint county governors to ensure they represent the state as a whole and not just the government under which they are appointed, "Postimees" reported on 8 December. SG

For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (TB/LNNK) held its seventh party congress in Riga on 6 December, LETA reported. TB/LNNK press secretary Sabine Prohorova said the party currently has 1,925 members, seven parliamentary deputies, and two ministers. TB/LNNK parliament faction Chairman Maris Grinblats expressed satisfaction with the foreign policy implemented by Prime Minister Einars Repse, but complained that parliament does not always fully understand steps taken by the government due to poor communication between the two institutions. With the support of 279 of the 363 congress delegates, Janis Straume, who ran unopposed, was re-elected party chairman, BNS reported on 8 December. SG

The 24-year-old Russian single-hull oil tanker "Hero of Sevastopal" departed from the port of Ventspils shortly after midnight on 6 December, bound for Singapore with a cargo of 55,000 tons of fuel oil, LETA reported. The ship was allowed to depart after EU and Latvian Maritime Administration officials inspected the ship and found it was fit to continue its journey, which will take it along the same route the single-hull tanker "Prestige" took when it sank off the Spanish coast in November 2002. Upon the arrival of the "Hero of Sevastopal" at Ventspils on 3 December, Spanish officials requested that it not be allowed to depart loaded. In addition, EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio and Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen requested that Latvia not allow the ship to depart before it could undergo inspections by experts from the EU's Maritime Safety Agency, which it passed. The EU banned single-hull tankers from its ports as of October, but Latvia is not expected to join the union until May and is thus not subject to the EU regulation. SG

More than 5,000 people, many of whom arrived on buses from various Lithuanian cities, held an hour-long rally in front of the parliament building on 6 December expressing support for President Rolandas Paksas, who has been at the center of a recent corruption scandal, "Kauno diena" reported on 8 December. The main speakers at the rally were members of the Lithuanian Liberal Democratic Party, which Paksas formed and headed before officially resigning when he took the presidency in compliance with constitutional requirement that the president have no political party affiliation. The rally adopted a resolution urging parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas to resign immediately in order not to compromise parliament. A handful of anti-Paksas demonstrators attended the event, along with 300 fully equipped police officers who were on hand to resolve any potential conflicts. SG

Wanda Rapaczynska, chairwoman of "Gazeta Wyborcza" publisher Agora, testified before the Warsaw Regional Court on 5 December and reiterated her allegations that film producer Lew Rywin sought a bribe of $17.5 million in July 2002 to lobby favorable amendments to a media law that might allow Agora to buy the Polsat television station, Polish Radio reported. Rywin's trial on charges of influence peddling, in a case dubbed "Rywingate" by the Polish media, began last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2003). According to Rapaczynska, Rywin told her that if Agora wanted to buy Polsat, it had to pay $17.5 million through his company to the account of the Democratic Left Alliance (SDL). During the previous hearing, Rywin had asked the court if he could be absent from the courtroom when witnesses from Agora were being questioned. Rywin said that when he is in the same room with Rapaczynska and "Gazeta Wyborcza" Editor in Chief Adam Michnik, his health condition deteriorates. The court declined his request. JM

Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski said on 5 December that a possible takeover of the Polish-controlled sector of Iraq by NATO troops would be a big success for the alliance and would in no way diminish Poland's role in the region, PAP reported. Szmajdzinski was commenting on last week's appeal by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to NATO for more involvement in Iraq. Asked about the possible relocation of NATO military bases to Poland, Szmajdzinski said that if the alliance presents the idea, the Polish government will first have to consult with the country's political groups and public opinion. JM

An effort by a deputy chairman of the junior ruling Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) to oust the party's current leadership failed at a republican party congress on 6 December, CTK and local media reported. Ratibor Majzlik, who heads the party's Democratic Union platform but is not a member of parliament, vowed to quit the party after just 15 of 300 delegates backed his motion to replace US-DEU Chairman Petr Mares and the rest of the party's leadership. Most analysts downplayed the threat of a true party split -- which could spell disaster for the ruling three-party coalition -- and other DEU-platform delegates were quoted as saying Majzlik did not consult them on the move (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 26 November 2003). The deputy head of US-DEU's parliamentary group, Karel Kuehnl, welcomed Majzlik's departure and said he will continue cooperation with DEU members who remain in the formation, which merged into one party in late 2001. Addressing the US-DEU conference the same day, US-DEU Chairman Mares defended the party's participation in the ruling coalition alongside the senior Social Democratic Party (CSSD) and the junior Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL). MS

Former Czechoslovak Communist Party official Karel Hoffmann, who was sentenced in November to a four-year prison term for silencing state broadcasts during the 1968 invasion of the country by Warsaw Pact troops, received a court summons on 5 December ordering him to start serving his sentence on 5 January, CTK reported. Hoffmann, 79, may apply for a postponement or a pardon on health grounds. In related news, a Prague court handed down suspended sentences to nine of 10 communist-era secret police agents who participated in the so-called Asanace crackdown against dissidents in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The operation was aimed at forcing dissidents to leave Czechoslovakia. A 10th defendant, Petr Zak, was sentenced to a three-year prison term. MS

President Rudolf Schuster drew prolonged applause from opposition deputies and silent disapproval from coalition representatives with his 5 December "state of the nation" speech before parliament, TASR, CTK, and Reuters reported. Schuster criticized the economic reforms launched by the four-party, center-right cabinet as insufficiently thought through and a factor in deteriorating living standards. He said Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has failed to coordinate the work of the cabinet and endangered the coalition by putting personal and party interests ahead of coalition unity. Schuster asked Dzurinda whether he feels "personally responsible" for the loss of citizens' confidence in politics and democratic institutions. Analysts cited by CTK and TASR said Schuster might have been using the speech to test popular and opposition support for running for a second term in next year's presidential elections. MS

Reacting to Schuster's state of the nation speech, Prime Minister Dzurinda said on 5 December that the country's difficulties are not the result of either the current cabinet's actions or those of Dzurinda's previous government, but they are a legacy of "the communist regime" in which Schuster was "a top official," TASR reported. Other coalition party leaders also distanced themselves from Schuster's address. Parliamentary speaker and Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) Chairman Pavol Hrusovsky called Schuster's speech "full of unconstructive criticism" and "unfortunate." Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) Chairman Bela Bugar said the president's annual address should not be used to deliver populist and partisan speeches, while Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO) Chairman Pavol Rusko said the speech was a signal that Schuster intends to seek re-election. MS

Parliament on 4 December overrode the presidential veto of a bill allowing the sale of majority stakes in natural monopolies -- including energy and gas utilities, TASR reported the next day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). MS

The Supreme Audit Office (NKU) has launched an investigation into whether Slovak Radio Director Jaroslav Reznik approved a dubious rental deal that allegedly cost the broadcaster 6.5 million crowns ($192,821), CTK reported on 5 December. Reznik is suspected of having approved the rental of Slovak Radio property at half the market value. Reznik rejects the accusations and claims he has done nothing improper. MS

Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz told "Magyar Hirlap" that Hungarian soldiers who came under fire in southern Iraq on 6 December responded in the manner in which they were trained to respond. Juhasz was commenting on an incident in which unidentified fighters opened fire on a Hungarian military convoy transporting wheelchairs from neighboring Kuwait to Iraqi health facilities, according to Hungarian media. The Hungarian troops returned fire, reportedly wounding one of the attackers, before leaving the area near Samarra. Juhasz vowed previously to recall Hungarian troops from Iraq if they found themselves under combat conditions. Opposition FIDESZ Deputy Istvan Simicsko, chairman of the parliamentary Defense Committee, said such guerrilla attacks would stop if the UN assumed command of international forces in Iraq from early next year, as the local population would not view foreign troops as occupation forces. Opposition Democratic Forum parliamentary group leader Karoly Herenyi said his party will propose recalling Hungarian troops from Iraq, "Matyar Hirlap" reported. MSZ

The right-wing Jobbik Magyarorszagert Mozgalom (Movement for a Right Hungary) organized a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Budapest on 6 December to protest Hungarian politicians' positions regarding the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, the MTI news agency reported. The organization's deputy chairman, Tamas Molnar, said parliament backs Hungarian participation in Iraq despite a lack of support for such activities among the vast majority of Hungarians. He proposed that a new military unit of parliamentary deputies be set up and travel to Iraq under the leadership of Defense Minister Juhasz to relieve the Hungarian soldiers on duty there. Other speakers at the protest demanded the immediate withdrawal of Hungarian soldiers. MSZ

A Hungarian-Slovak joint commission of experts on minority issues on 7 December finalized the text of an intergovernmental agreement on implementing Hungary's Status Law in Slovakia, Hungarian and Slovak media reported. The Slovak delegation agreed that Hungarian educational subsidies may be transferred to ethnic Hungarians through the Pazmany Peter Foundation, which was founded in Slovakia by ethnic Hungarian teachers and parents, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Bratislava had insisted that a public foundation registered in Slovakia -- in which Slovak government officials work -- handle the distribution of education subsidies. According to the new agreement, ethnic Slovaks in Hungary would also receive subsidies for education in their mother tongue through a foundation set up by the Slovak minority authority in Hungary. The agreement must still be endorsed by both governments and then signed by the two countries' foreign ministers. MSZ

On 5 December, the Hague-based war crimes tribunal sentenced former Bosnian Serb General Stanislav Galic to 20 years in prison for deliberately shelling and killing civilians between September 1992 and August 1994 during the siege of Sarajevo, international and regional media reported. The tribunal convicted Galic on five counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, inhumane acts, and violence intended to spread terror among civilians. Prosecutors charged that Galic's forces turned the city into a "medieval hell." Presiding Judge Alphons Orie noted that "the campaign against civilians was intended primarily to terrorize the civilian population," adding that Galic "controlled the pace and scale of those crimes." During the siege, "no civilian was safe, anywhere," the judge argued. About 10,500 people died and 50,000 were injured during the siege. PM

Barisa Colak, who heads the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, unveiled a statue of the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in Colak's hometown of Siroki Brijeg in western Herzegovina on 6 December, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The statue stands more than 3 meters tall. Siroki Brijeg has long been known as a Croatian-nationalist stronghold. PM

In Rotterdam on 6 December, Dutch police arrested Sladjan Konstantinovic, who is one of 10 men sought by Serbian police in connection with the 12 March assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Reuters reported. Dutch police also arrested a second man, whom they initially thought was Konstantinovic's younger brother, Ninoslav, who is also wanted in the Djindjic case. A Dutch police spokesman said on 7 December, however, that they are unsure of the second man's real identity. Both men will appear in an Amsterdam court on 9 December (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March and 9 May 2003). PM

Serbia and Montenegro's official council charged with cooperating with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal said in a statement on 7 December that it will extradite former Yugoslav General Pavle Strugar to The Hague following the tribunal's rejection of an appeal by his family that he is too ill to stand trial, dpa reported. Strugar was indicted in conjunction with the 1991 shelling of Dubrovnik and pillaging of its suburbs by Serbian and Montenegrin forces. He surrendered to the tribunal in 2001 and was allowed to await his trial at home. On 4 December, the tribunal released Strugar's co-defendant, Vice Admiral Miodrag Jokic, pending his sentencing on similar charges, to which he pleaded guilty in August. Upon his release, Jokic publicly apologized for the deaths and destruction resulting from the shelling, which he was accused of failing to prevent. PM

Following what media called a "bitter and polemical debate," the Macedonian parliament adopted a new citizenship law on 5 December, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Under the new law, foreign nationals qualify for Macedonian citizenship after eight years of legal residence, thus considerably reducing the former 15-year period of legal residence. The governing coalition of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) and the ethnic Albanian Union for Democratic Integration (BDI) voted down a proposal by the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) seeking to give preferential treatment to ethnic Macedonians living abroad (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2003). Many individuals awaiting Macedonian citizenship are immigrants from Kosova, southern Serbia, or Albania who are relatives of ethnic Albanian Macedonian citizens. UB

On 6 December, a group of Serbian nationalists set fire to several UN vehicles and stoned a restaurant in Serbian-controlled northern Mitrovica, where Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi had met officials from the World Bank, regional and international media reported. Rexhepi had already left the restaurant in the divided city before the attack. Two Serbian members of the government were supposed to attend the meeting but did not show up. The following day, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, who has an office in northern Mitrovica close to the dividing line separating the two halves of the city, called Rexhepi's presence "an obvious provocation" in the run-up to an EU foreign ministers' meeting at which Kosova will be discussed. Covic's party is not expected to clear the 5 percent threshold in the 28 December Serbian parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 1 and 22 August and 17 October 2003). A spokesman for the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) condemned the attack, noting that the visitors were trying to promote the economic development of the province. PM

The Bucharest Court of Appeals rejected an appeal on 5 December by the opposition Justice and Truth Alliance contesting a decision by the Bucharest Tribunal to deny registration of the alliance, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 2003). The decision is final, but representatives of the two parties that formed the alliance -- the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Party -- said they might appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Former PNL Chairman Valeriu Stoica said the decision was "strange" and added that an appeal can be heard by the ECHR on the grounds that the ruling violates the right to freedom of association, Mediafax reported on 7 December. Justice and Truth Alliance spokesman Calin Popescu Tariceanu said the decision again demonstrates that the independence of Romanian courts is "questionable." Democratic Party Chairman Traian Basescu said the Court of Appeals' decision is indicative of the "desperation" of the ruling Social Democratic Party in the face of the possibility of losing the 2004 elections. Basescu said he will now propose that instead of registering the alliance under the abbreviation "DA" (which means "yes" in Romanian), the alliance should register under the abbreviation "D.A." MS

The Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a 5 December letter addressed to Prime Minister Adrian Nastase that the "growing number of physical attacks on [Romanian] journalists who investigate corruption within the ruling political class, especially in the provinces, is extremely worrying," according to an RSF press release. RSF's letter came following a recent attack in Timisoara on journalist Ino Ardelean (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003). RSF wrote that the "work of investigative journalists is essential in the fight against corruption that is eating away at your country." It called on Nastase to ensure that everything possible be done to identify and punish the perpetrators, lest "the enemies of press freedom, who are increasingly concerned about protecting their image in the run-up to the 2004 legislative and presidential elections," come to believe they "can, with impunity, use violence against journalists they consider troublesome." Meanwhile, some 100 journalists held a silent march in Timisoara on 5 December during which they broke pens in a symbolic gesture of protest against the attack on Ardelean. MS

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana told journalists in Brussels on 5 December that Bucharest has so far "deliberately subdued" its role in the Moldovan conflict, and that Romania's role in resolving the conflict "should become a little more prominent" now that Russia's proposed resolution plan has failed to gain acceptance, Reuters reported. Geoana said that "Romania is an important and influential player, and continuing to believe that we don't have a legitimate interest [in Moldova] -- at least as important as those of Ukraine and Russia -- would be a counterproductive illusion." Geoana also said Romania believes the "explicit involvement of the European Union and the United States under the aegis of the OSCE" would provide a new impetus to the negotiations (see also "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2003). MS

Guenter Verheugen said in Chisinau on 5 December following talks with President Vladimir Voronin and Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev that the two sides will jointly work out within six months an "action plan" for closer cooperation between Moldova and the EU, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Verheugen said Moldova is closer to EU accession than Ukraine, Russia, or Belarus, which are also part of the EU's New Neighborhood Policy approved in March 2003. However, he said that to facilitate the country's EU-accession efforts, Moldovan authorities must initiate broad economic and political reforms, improve Moldova's business climate to attract foreign investment, and act more resolutely in combating corruption. Verheugen said the EU is against changing the current five-party format of negotiations for a settlement of the Transdniester conflict by being added as a mediator alongside Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE. However, he said, the EU might consider participation in post-settlement peacekeeping in the region, in offering security guarantees, and in helping Moldova overcome its economic difficulties by allowing access of Moldovan goods into EU markets. MS

Government and opposition representatives reached no agreement at a session of the Permanent Roundtable held in Chisinau on 5 December at which positions on the envisaged federalization of the country were debated, Infotag reported. Victor Stepaniuc, leader of the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) parliamentary group, said at the session that despite its shortcomings, the Russian federalization plan can still be considered a "starting point." Stepaniuc accused the opposition parties of seeking to end Moldova's status as an independent state and turn it once again into a Romanian province. Our Moldova co-Chairman Dumitru Braghis said no plan for a settlement of the Transdniester conflict can work unless it is approved in a plebiscite, adding that no plebiscite can be held until the withdrawal of Russian troops from the separatist region is completed. Popular Party Christian Democratic Chairman Iurie Rosca said Moldova's problems stem from the PCM's inability to grasp the idea of political pluralism, adding that this has led the opposition to unite. Democratic Party Chairman Dumitru Diacov said the PCM divides society into friend and foe, and this makes dialogue impossible due to the PCM's "arrogance." MS

The PCM majority in the Moldovan parliament voted on 5 December to dismiss Lidia Gutu (Our Moldova) as chairwoman of parliament's Social Protection and Family Affairs Committee, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003). Parliamentary speaker Evgenia Ostapchuk said the vote was taken in the absence of opposition deputies because they refused to attend the debate. Ostapchuk said the Our Moldova parliamentary group should now nominate from its ranks a deputy who would be "more suitable" for Gutu's position. MS

President Georgi Parvanov has called on Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski and parliamentary speaker Ognyan Gerdzhikov to join his initiative to spare blocks No. 3 and No. 4 of the Kozloduy nuclear-power plant from early closure, reported on 5 December. Parvanov wants the government, parliament, and the presidency to ask the European Union to reconsider its demand that those blocks be shut down by 2006. Parvanov believes that if the three institutions inform the EU about the results of a recent peer review of the power plant and the financial loss that would result from an early closure, they will succeed in convincing the EU to reopen the energy chapter of the acquis communautaire. That chapter, which was closed by Bulgaria last year, stipulates that the plants be closed by 2006. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, recently suggested that closed chapters of the acquis communautaire may not be reopened (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 19 November and 1 December 2003). UB

Parliamentary speaker Gerdzhikov responded to Parvanov's proposal on 5 December by saying that he supports the idea of reopening negotiations with Brussels on the fate of blocks No. 3 and No. 4 of the Kozloduy nuclear-power plant, reported. According to Gerdzhikov, those blocks should be decommissioned sometime after 2007, when Bulgaria expects to become a full member of the EU. He noted that the government's consent on closing the reactors was not backed by the parliament. Prime Minister Saxecoburggotski recently said Bulgaria must shut down the plant in 2006 or wait an additional 10-20 years for EU membership. On 6 December, Bulgaria's European Affairs Minister Meglena Kuneva said the reopening of the energy chapter is technically possible but could complicate accession, the "Sofia Morning News" reported. UB

By any measure, 7 December 2003 was a big day for Unified Russia. Not only did the "party of power" win more than one-third of the party-list vote -- an impressive feat in a field of 23 parties -- it also gained nearly three times as many votes as its nearest competitor, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Moreover, Unified Russia also won nearly nine times as many single-mandate districts as the Communist Party, its nearest rival.

As a result, Unified Russia will receive 117 of the 225 State Duma seats distributed according to proportional representation, while candidates backed by Unified Russia carried at least 105 of the 225 single-mandate districts. That puts President Vladimir Putin's favorite party very close to an outright majority in the new Duma.

These achievements followed a campaign in which Unified Russia told voters almost nothing about who the party was nominating for the Duma or what they would do if elected.

Unified Russia's campaign strategy required others, not the party's own candidates, to do the heavy lifting. It benefited from its association with Putin, who has maintained consistently high approval ratings -- always over 50 percent, usually in the 60 to 70 percent range -- for the last four years. Most major regional leaders endorsed the party and brought their "administrative resources" to bear on its behalf.

Unified Russia also received copious favorable exposure on the news programming of the national television networks. This advantage enabled the party to opt out of the free-airtime debates on state television and radio, to which all groups on the ballot were entitled. In a statement issued in early November, the "party of power" claimed it was avoiding the debates because it was "inexpedient and dangerous to waste time on advertising and making populist statements on the air."

The idea that campaigning for public office is unstatesmanlike and even harmful has its roots in Putin's 2000 presidential campaign, which similarly denigrated the idea of articulating positions to voters. Then acting President Putin, the clear frontrunner, skipped the debates and declined to publish an election platform. He criticized attempts to "brainwash" voters with advertising and even compared campaign videos to commercials about "what is more important: Tampax or Snickers."

Unified Russia's attempt to strike the same pose would have been more convincing had the party not produced more than two dozen paid advertisements that aired on national television during this year's campaign. Presidential candidate Putin did not run paid television commercials.

Unlike debates, television commercials do not have to feature concrete candidates answering specific questions on various topics. Unified Russia did not "waste time" on campaign promises; its many television commercials were almost entirely devoid of any content that might tell voters what to expect from the party.

The common denominator of all of the Unified Russia commercials was the slogan "Together With The President," which invariably appeared near the end. Most were a montage of apolitical feel-good images strung together in quick succession: happy families, smiling workers in various settings, gleaming new buildings, beautiful rural scenes, a newly married couple, and so on. Many of those commercials contained the following voiceover:

"Everyone has his own Russia. The one he sees, the one nearby. For one person it's a factory; for another a [farmer's] field. We all have our own little Russia, and only if you put them all together is the picture unified, and we can see how great and rich Russia is. It has everything [needed] to build a decent life for each person. Together with the president, choose Unified Russia."

Several other Unified Russia spots featured ordinary people giving what appeared to be unscripted remarks in support of the party. For instance, a man says other people might have forgotten the ruble crisis of 1998, but he remembers, and prefers the greater stability now. A woman says: "What's to choose? I'm for the president, so I'm for Unified Russia." These spots also end with the slogan "Together With The President, Choose Unified Russia."

No Unified Russia advertisements contained any policy proposals or outlined any legislative achievements. A handful of commercials featured statistics that reflect well on the government. "In the last four years," one advertisement stated, "real incomes have grown by 26 percent." But how Unified Russia contributed to such developments, and what it plans to do to continue the positive trends, remained unclear.

Incredibly, not a single Unified Russia advertisement aired on national television featured any candidate who is likely actually to serve in the Duma. Footage of Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu doing his job, meeting with Putin, and so on dominated a few spots. But Shoigu said nothing during those spots, and in any case he will not take up a Duma seat.

In Moscow, some of the Unified Russia advertisements featured the popular Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, the No. 3 candidate on the party's federal list, even though he too has no intention of serving in the Duma. Some of those spots concentrated on wordless footage of Luzhkov set to music. Others contained the jingle "Unified Russia, our only strength, I'm voting for Luzhkov's party again," followed by clips of the mayor addressing a Unified Russia congress, and shouting his support for the president and for vague goals such as "strengthening state power."

Those commercials were ironic in light of the 1999 parliamentary campaign. At that time, "Luzhkov's party" -- Fatherland-All Russia -- was the mortal enemy of Unified Russia's predecessor, Unity. In fact, four years ago, news and analysis programs on Kremlin-connected national television depicted Luzhkov as a corrupt, murderous thief. Now Luzhkov's booming voice hails Putin's achievements, while an original architect of Unity, tycoon Boris Berezovskii, lives in self-imposed exile in London.

Without saying much about policy, Unity's 1999 campaign achieved better results than any previous attempt to elect a "party of power" to the State Duma. Unified Russia has now followed the same playbook to an even more impressive victory. What the new pro-government Duma majority will do with its legislative clout is unclear. But as long as voters are satisfied with vague promises to stand with the president, Unified Russia will not be the last party to run a content-free parliamentary campaign.

Laura Belin has written extensively on Russian politics and media issues since 1995.

Nine Afghan children were killed on 6 December during a U.S. air strike aimed at a suspected neo-Taliban member, U.S. and Afghan officials said on 7 December. The air strike in Ghazni Province also killed one man who was not the intended target, "The New York Times" reported on 8 December. A statement issued from Bagram Air Base, the main base for the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, said that "coalition forces regret the loss of any innocent life." The coalition statement said troops still in Ghazni "will make every effort to assist the families of the innocent casualties and determine the cause of the civilian deaths." The coalition statement also said a commission will be established to look into the incident, but offered no details about the attack. An Afghan official in Ghazni, Haji Masud, said the attack was intended for former Taliban member Mullah Wazir. "They bombed Mullah Wazir's house and civilians were also killed," Masud said, adding that an official Afghan delegation will go to the area to conduct an investigation. MR

Suspected neo-Taliban members on 6 December abducted two Indian contractors in Shah Joy district of Zabul Province, Reuters reported on 7 December. The men, who were working on a U.S.-funded project to rebuild an Afghan highway, were abducted in the afternoon while shopping, said Zabul Province police chief Mohammad Ayoub. "They were picked up by suspected Taliban along with three Afghan colleagues who were released and informed the authorities about the kidnapping," Ayoub said. "Efforts are under way to trace the Indians and their captors." The Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) news agency, based in Pakistan, said a man identifying himself as a Taliban member called to claim responsibility for the kidnapping. According to AIP, the caller said guerillas abducted the two Indians on the border between Zabul and Ghazni provinces, but he offered no other details. An official at the Indian Embassy in Kabul refused to divulge the names of the abducted men, but said they both worked for an Indian firm contracted to Louis Berger Group Inc., the U.S. company heading the highway reconstruction project. MR

Al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden has told neo-Taliban leaders that he is diverting guerrilla fighters and funds from Afghanistan to Iraq, the 15 December issue of "Newsweek" reported. According to the weekly, bin Laden's emissaries met with men close to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in mid-November in Khost Province to deliver the message. Citing Taliban sources, the weekly said bin Laden planned to halve the $3 million in guerilla aid he reportedly gives monthly to the Taliban in order to further the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq. A spokesman for Omar, Hamid Agha, denied that neo-Taliban forces are suffering from lack of manpower or funds. "We have enough money to fund our resistance," Agha said. The bin Laden aides who met with Omar's representatives urged Taliban forces to align with other guerilla resistance figures, such as warlords Sayed Akbar Agha and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are opposed to the Afghan Transitional Administration. MR

Some of the more than 500 delegates expected to participate in this week's debate on Afghanistan's draft constitution began informal talks on 6 December, according to the director of the constitutional commission secretariat, Faruk Wardak, AFP reported on 7 December. More than 200 of the expected 500 delegates had arrived by 7 December, when delegates planned to hold initial meetings to discuss rules and procedures for the constitutional debate. Organizers of the commission hope to see delegates approve Afghanistan's draft constitution, which would pave the way for Afghanistan's first elections. Wardak said that four of Afghanistan's 32 provinces have elected their delegates, with the rest of the provinces expected to complete delegate selection on 8 December. Neo-Taliban forces have vowed to disrupt the constitutional debate with guerrilla attacks. MR

The Student Basij, a conservative campus organization, held a ceremony in the Shahid Chamran Hall of the Technical University in Tehran on 7 December, the 50th anniversary of the date in 1953 when Iranian police shot and killed three students demonstrating against U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon's visit to the Iranian capital, state television reported. The date is commemorated annually as Student Day. At another campus event the same day, the Islamic Association of Tehran University and Tehran Medical Sciences University issued a resolution asserting that the official non-reaction to the July 1999 hard-liners' attack on the Tehran University campus encouraged hard-liners in their May 2003 attack on the university dormitory, according to ILNA. The resolution also criticized the Guardians Council's power of "approbatory supervision," by which it vets candidates for elected office and even reverses election results. According to IRNA, about 1,000 people participated in that gathering. Reuters reported a similar number of demonstrators, adding that they chanted, ''Free all political prisoners,'' and, ''Death to despotism.'' Some students reportedly carried photographs of their imprisoned cohorts, while others voiced disgruntlement with the people they elected. AFP reported that about 1,500 students took part in the demonstration. BS

The Iranian government tried to prevent the almost inevitable clashes between hard-line vigilantes and students by confining Student Day events to the university campus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003). Nevertheless, the police were out in force and kept the rival groups apart, with the Tehran police department's chief information officer, Mohammad Reza Turani, telling ILNA on 7 December that events at Tehran University passed without incident and that he has no information about any arrests. Speaking earlier, Turani said the police dispersed all the plainclothes vigilantes who were hanging around the campus. ILNA had said of the vigilantes that they were "ensconced in the west wing of Tehran University." BS

Speaker of parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said on 7 December that a delegation has been selected to investigate events that occurred in the Sistan va Baluchistan Province town of Saravan three days earlier, ILNA reported. Jafar Kambuzia, the parliamentary representative from the provincial capital of Zahedan, had said on 6 December that police shot and killed an individual who did not have a drivers license and who ignored an order to stop, ILNA reported. Bystanders were reportedly enraged and clashed with the police, who were said to have shot and killed four more people, and then more security personnel arrived. Kambuzia told ILNA that the police have acted violently in recent months. Kambuzia described police tactics as "unacceptable" and the wrong way to establish security. "It will only make people cynical and cause even more problems," he said. Such events occur in Sistan va Baluchistan Province with some frequency, and eight people were killed by police in Semirom, Isfahan Province, in August. BS

Police in Yazd Province on 6 December arrested the "main suspects" in the previous day's attack on a visiting parliamentarian, IRNA reported. The victim of the attack, Isfahan parliamentary representative Mohsen Mirdamadi, told ISNA on 6 December that the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party invited him to speak at Yazd University in place of parliamentarian Ahmad Shirzad. Shortly after he started his speech, about 100 slogan-chanting people entered the auditorium and 40 of them attacked Mirdamadi, he said. He added that there were only 10 policemen present. Mirdamadi linked the incident with the upcoming parliamentary election. "Such events will continue to occur as we approach the elections [in February]," he said. "The political situation is heating up, and electoral rivalries are emerging." Provincial Governor-General Hamid Kalantari and Friday prayer leader Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Saduqi expressed their regrets over the incident, ISNA reported. Asked about the security measures at the venue, Kalantari said he thought changing the speaker would have precluded any protests. BS

A purported former Iraqi military officer told London's "Sunday Telegraph" that he provided the United States and United Kingdom with information on Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs for more than seven years, the newspaper reported on 7 December. The officer, identified only as Lieutenant Colonel al-Dabbagh, said British Prime Minister Tony Blair's much-publicized claim in a dossier released last year that Iraq could launch biological and chemical weapons within 45-minutes was "200 percent accurate," adding: "And forget 45 minutes. We could have fired them within half an hour." Al-Dabbagh said he was the person responsible for supplying the Blair administration with the intelligence information on the weapons. Iraqi Governing Council member Iyad Allawi confirmed that al-Dabbagh supplied his London-based opposition group the Iraqi National Accord (INA), now an Iraqi political party, with information on Iraq's WMD programs. He added that al-Dabbagh's brother in law, a middleman, provided coalition forces with crucial information regarding the location of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's main bunker, bombed during the early hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom. KR

The Iraqi Governing Council is expected to vote this week on the formation of a war crimes tribunal that would prosecute members of the deposed Hussein regime who participated in crimes against the Iraqi people, international media reported. Governing Council member Muhsin Abd al-Hamid said in a statement that the public tribunal will be based on Iraqi law and presided over by Iraqi judges, Dubai's Al-Arabiyah television reported on 7 December. "The court formed by the [Governing Council] a few months ago, which it called the Court of Justice and Fairness, is a civilian rather than martial or extraordinary court. It is comprised of senior Iraqi judges who will be aided by investigators, public prosecutors, and defense attorneys," he said. Baghdad Judge and Governing Council member Dara Nur al-Din told that the draft law, written with the help of the Americans, provides for a five-judge panel to review cases based both on international and Iraqi criminal law, the website reported on 8 December. The court will refer to a 1958 Iraqi law, which made it a capital crime to destabilize or threaten Iraq, as a basis for prosecuting former regime officials, he said. KR

Unknown assailants have killed two men with ties to the deposed Hussein regime in recent days, according to international media. The former director of security for Baghdad, Major General Khalaf al-Alusi, was reportedly killed when four gunmen opened fire on him at his home in Baghdad on 6 December, Al-Arabiyah television reported the same day. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi television reported on 7 December that former Major General Abd al-Humud Muhawish was found dead on a roadside in Al-Ramadi. Abu Dhabi television cited eyewitnesses as saying traces of torture were visible on his body. KR

The Baghdad daily "Al-Manar" on 4 December published a draft declaration on Human Rights written by the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry. The draft declaration recognizes the equality of all citizens before the law and guarantees the right to life, bans medical and drug testing on humans as well as the cloning of humans, and prohibits physical and psychological torture. It also states that Iraq guarantees the right to education to all citizens; calls for civil, political, economic, and social rights for women; and declares that the state should ensure a decent standard of living for citizens, including food, housing, clothing, health care, and social insurance against unemployment, old age, disability, and for widows and orphans. The Human Rights Ministry plans to hold a national conference in January to discuss the draft before Iraq issues a declaration on human rights. KR

Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski said on 5 December that a possible takeover of the Polish-controlled sector of Iraq by NATO troops would be a big success for the alliance and would in no way diminish Poland's role in the region, PAP reported. Szmajdzinski was commenting on last week's appeal by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to NATO for more involvement in Iraq. Asked about the possible relocation of NATO military bases to Poland, Szmajdzinski said that if the alliance presents the idea, the Polish government will first have to consult with the country's political groups and public opinion. JM