FIRST PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE REGISTERED...
The Central Election Commission (TsIK) on 8 January registered the first candidate in the 14 March presidential election, Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) nominee Oleg Malyshkin, Russian media reported. Addressing journalists, Malyshkin promised to participate in televised election debates if they are held. Gazeta.ru reported that Malyshkin, 52, seemed a little unsure at his first press conference, and that LDPR leader Zhirinovskii had to tell him to speak to the camera. Meanwhile, the TsIK announced that another candidate, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, will not be allowed any free airtime as a candidate, because his bloc, the Party of Russia's Rebirth-Party of Life, did not surpass the 5 percent barrier in the 7 December elections, and therefore owes money to the commission for the airtime it used during that race. Motherland bloc leader Sergei Glazev told reporters in Moscow on 8 January that no signatures will be gathered to support the candidacy of Viktor Gerashchenko, according to RosBalt. Earlier this week, the TsIK ruled that Gerashchenko is required to collect the signatures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2004), and Gerashchenko supporters vowed to appeal that ruling to the courts. JAC
...AND PRO-PUTIN FORCES WORK WITHOUT REST
In Kamchatka Oblast, the regional headquarters for the effort to re-elect President Vladimr Putin was one of the few offices operating during the recent holiday period, regions.ru reported on 8 January, citing Vostok-Media. The office has already gathered more than 9,000 of the 15,000-signature target set for that city. JAC
MOTHERLAND BLOC TO BECOME PARTY
Motherland leader Glazev told reporters on 8 January that Motherland plans to become a party, but would still welcome unification with the Communist Party, RosBalt reported. According to Glazev, there are parallel processes under way to transform Motherland into a party, such as the consolidation of parties that want to enter the bloc and the creation of a broad public movement of supporters. Glazev added that the Communist Party's rejection of his group's bid to form a broad people's patriotic front led to the failure of the Communist Party and victory of Unified Russia in the 7 December Duma elections. Polit.ru suggested that Motherland's desire to become a party was prompted by a new law that only political parties can participate in the next parliamentary elections. JAC
GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER HOLDS INFORMAL TALKS IN MOSCOW
On what was described as a private visit to Moscow, Tedo Djaparidze met on 8 January with Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii, who is first deputy chief of staff of the Russian armed forces general staff, to discuss the optimal time frame for the closure of the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia, Russian and Georgian media reported. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said Baluevskii reiterated that Russia has no desire to maintain those bases indefinitely, but that it cannot for financial reasons close them before 2014. Tbilisi has insisted since 2002 that they should be closed within three-four years (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 January 2003). Interfax on 8 January quoted an unidentified official at the Georgian Embassy in Moscow as saying Georgia is ready to work on a compromise agreement on the closure of the two bases. LF
NOTED ANALYST SEES SIMILARITIES BETWEEN BUSH AND PUTIN...
Writing in "Izvestiya" on 8 January, Fedor Burlatskii, a former adviser to Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yurii Andropov, and Mikhail Gorbachev who is now president of the Academy of Science's Political Science Council, noted that U.S. President George W. Bush and President Putin have similar characters and political experience. Both men are reserved, but tough and capable of decisive action, Burlatskii wrote. They are both religious, devout patriots, and inclined to view the world in ideological terms. Both are facing the challenge of an election year, although this challenge is much greater for Bush. The first terms of both presidents have been marked by war -- Chechnya for Putin, and Afghanistan and Iraq for Bush. Both presidents have faced economic difficulties at home. Despite modest economic progress in Russia, average standards of living have not improved, while Bush has wrestled with mounting budget deficits. VY
...AND PREDICTS THAT GOOD BILATERAL RELATIONS WILL CONTINUE
In the same "Izvestiya" article, Burlatskii wrote that President Bush's Democratic opponent will likely try "to play the Russia card" during the U.S. campaign, emphasizing "growing authoritarianism" under President Putin. Burlatskii wrote that such charges are unfair to Putin, especially since many in the West continue to consider former President Boris Yeltsin a "true democrat." However, Yeltsin was known in Russia as "Tsar Boris" and he presided over "the most barbaric plunder of Russia's national wealth in history and the vast expansion of crime," Burlatskii wrote. He notes that the tendency toward authoritarianism exists in Russia, but adds that it will take decades for the country to rid itself of this historic mentality. Burlatskii concluded that Bush and Putin will continue to pursue vigorous bilateral cooperation. VY
MINISTER CALLS FOR SHIFT OF PRIORITIES IN HEALTH CARE
Health Minister Yurii Shevchenko said on 8 January that during the 1980s in the Soviet Union a cult of "the sick person" developed, as a result of which the health-care system devoted its resources and attention to the ill rather than developing preventative and prophylactic care, newsru.com reported. As a consequence, most Russians fail to comply with elementary sanitary and hygienic practices, despite the fact that such a failure is a major cause of illness. As a result, on any given day, 3 million Russians do not go to work because of illness. About 70 percent of Russians approaching pension age suffer from at least one ailment, even though Russia's retirement age is five to 10 years earlier than those in many developed countries. Sixty-five percent of Russian schoolchildren show some deviation from medical norms, and 84 percent of military conscripts are unable to complete a test of basic physical exercise, Shevchenko said. He urged the rapid development of a preventative health-care system. VY
ANOTHER MUSCOVITE APPOINTED TO FEDERATION COUNCIL
Kaliningrad Oblast Governor Vladimir Yegorov has appointed Oleg Tkach as his representative to the Federation Council, replacing Aleksandr Skorobogatko, RosBalt reported on 8 January. Skorobogatko was recently elected to the State Duma from the LDPR party list. Tkach, 36, is a resident of Moscow and a former general director of the OLMA Media Group. JAC
HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN'S LATEST SUGGESTION COULD BE HIS LAST
Human rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov has appealed to the new State Duma to form a Human Rights Committee, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 8 January. Mironov called on deputies to make human rights a priority for the newly formed legislature. Mironov's five-year term expired on 22 June 2003, and "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 23 December that the issue of replacing him is being actively discussed. In June, legislators could not come up with the necessary 300 votes to elect a new ombudsman. State Duma Deputy Pavel Krashennikov (Union of Rightist Forces) received the most votes, and Mironov came in second (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 June 2003). According to "Rossiiskaya gazeta," Kamil Kalandarov, director of the Institute for Human Rights and a member of the presidential human rights commission, has nominated himself to be Unified Russia's choice for the post. JAC
KURGAN OBLAST LEGISLATURE GIVES GOVERNOR, LEGISLATORS LONGER TERMS IN OFFICE
Legislators in Kurgan Oblast have extended the terms in office for themselves and for the oblast governor from four to five years, gazeta.ru reported on 9 January. The change was introduced during the oblast legislature's last session of 2003 and was subsequently confirmed by oblast Governor Oleg Bogomolov. The news report did not specify when the change will become effective. Bogomolov is currently serving his second term, which expires in December. JAC
RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH SPEAKS OUT IN FAVOR OF CRIMINAL CASE AGAINST SAKHAROV MUSEUM
Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's External Relations Department, said on 8 January that he hopes the court hearing a criminal case prompted by an anti-clerical exhibition held at the Andrei Sakharov Museum in January "will consider not only the artists and exhibition organizers, but also the feelings of those who were seriously offended," newsru.com reported. Sakharov Museum Director Yurii Samodurov and three artists who participated in the "Caution, Religion" exhibition are facing charges of inciting religious hatred and could face three to five years in prison (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003). Chaplin continued that in no society is it permissible to defile monuments of the dead, state symbols, and the like. "It is difficult to understand why a few people could believe that it is possible to defile religious symbols, which for many people symbolize [what they hold] most dear," he said. JAC
AZERBAIJANI GROUPS PROTEST PLANNED VISIT BY ARMENIAN GENERALS
The unofficial Organization for the Liberation of Karabakh (OLK) and the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) have both issued statements deploring the planned participation of Armenia in a NATO exercise to take place in Azerbaijan in September, Turan reported on 8 January. The AMIP statement branded the anticipated Armenian participation as "disrespect for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity." The OLK has threatened to prevent an advance visit to Baku by Armenian officers to discuss preparations for the September exercise, according to the Russian-language daily "Ekho" on 8 January, as cited by Groong. Meeting with journalists on 8 January, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev stressed that the Armenian generals are visiting Baku at the invitation of NATO, not of the Azerbaijani leadership, according to Trend News Agency, as cited by Groong. LF
GEORGIA SCHEDULES PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Elections for the 150 parliamentary mandates to be distributed according to the proportional-representation system will take place on 28 March, acting President Nino Burdjanadze told journalists on 9 January, according to independent television company Rustavi-2. Burdjanadze said the new Georgian leadership initially planned to schedule the ballot for 7 March, but postponed it after consultations with various political forces. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Bruce George had proposed April or May as the most appropriate time frame. Election-law expert Vakhtang Khmaladze pointed out at a press conference on 8 January that the Election Code does not provide for holding elections for the 150 seats distributed under the proportional system independently of the ballot for the 75 single-mandate constituencies, Caucasus Press reported. He called on Burdjanadze to ensure that the required changes are made to the Election Code. The Georgian Supreme Court on 25 November annulled the outcome of the 2 November parliamentary elections under the proportional-representation system, but declared valid the vote in the single-mandate constituencies. LF
GEORGIAN OFFICIALS CRITICIZE ADJAR CRACKDOWN
Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Giorgi Ugulava said on 8 January that the state of emergency imposed late the previous day in the Adjar Autonomous Republic violates the Georgian Constitution, as declaring a state of emergency anywhere in Georgia is the exclusive prerogative of the Georgian president, Interfax and RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze said in Tbilisi the same day that the detention in Batumi of two members of the opposition movement Kmara (Enough!) was illegal and groundless, ITAR-TASS reported. But Adjar Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze denied the two men were arrested for their political activities, Caucasus Press reported. The two men have not been allowed to see their lawyers, and on 9 January one of them was remanded to three months' pretrial detention, according to Caucasus Press. On 8 January, opposition Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili accused President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili of seeking to provoke a bloodbath in Adjaria, the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported. LF
PLANS FOR NEW GEORGIAN PRESIDENTIAL RESIDENCE SPARK CONTROVERSY
Giorgi Arveladze, who is Georgian President-elect Saakashvili's spokesman, denied on 8 January that the reconstruction of the traffic-police headquarters in Tbilisi's historic Avlabar quarter to serve as the new presidential residence will cost millions of dollars, Interfax reported. Arveladze said the costs would be raised from the sale of state-owned mansions and from international donations. Opposition Labor Party leader Natelashvili, who does not recognize Saakashvili's election as legitimate, said earlier on 8 January that the planned reconstruction would cost millions of laris that could be better spent on paying wage and pension arrears, Caucasus Press reported. That agency further recalled that prior to his election, Saakashvili and his wife both said they would be content to live in a three-room apartment. LF
SEARCH WARRANT ISSUED FOR FORMER GEORGIAN REGIONAL GOVERNOR
The Tbilisi City Prosecutor's Office has issued a search warrant for former Kvemo Kartli Governor Levan Mamaladze, a close associate of former President Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgian and Russian media reported on 8 January. Mamaladze faces charges of corruption and accepting bribes, including a Chevrolet automobile. Mamaladze left Georgia for Russia following Shevardnadze's resignation. Caucasus Press on 8 January quoted him as telling Rustavi-2 that he is being subject to political persecution and will seek asylum abroad. LF
ABKHAZ LEADER PROPOSES SIGNING PEACE TREATY WITH GEORGIA
Abkhaz Vice President Valerii Arshba told Abkhaz State Television on 8 January that he believes an agreement on peace and the nonresumption of hostilities would constitute a favorable foundation for beginning talks with Georgia's new leadership, Interfax reported. Arshba has suggested such a peace treaty on several occasions since Shevardnadze resigned on 23 November. Arshba also stressed that firm action by the new Georgian leadership "to disband the gangs and armed groups that are committing acts of terrorism and sabotage in Abkhazia" would have "a positive effect on the peace settlement process and build mutual confidence." The prospects for a rapprochement appear minimal, however, in the light of Georgian President-elect Saakashvili's rejection of a federal model for Georgia and his insistence that Abkhazia should be an autonomous formation within a unitary Georgian state. LF
KAZAKHSTAN EXPECTS TO INVEST UP TO $1 BILLION IN RUSSIA
On the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin's 9-10 January visit to Kazakhstan, Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev told journalists in Astana that Kazakhstan expects to invest as much as $1 billion in the Russian economy this year, RIA-Novosti reported on 8 January. Toqaev added that Kazakh banks have already begun investing in Russia. He noted that Russians are eager to invest in Kazakhstan, which he said is beneficial both economically and politically, given international predictions of Russia's probable future economic growth. The same day, LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov told RIA-Novosti in Moscow that his company intends to invest up to $3 billion to develop oilfields on the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea shelf. LUKoil plans to launch a joint venture with Kazakh state oil firm KazMunayGaz in 2004. Alekperov noted that LUKoil has already invested $1.5 billion in oil-development projects in Kazakhstan in the last eight years, making the firm the largest Russian investor in Kazakhstan. BB
KAZAKH FOREIGN MINISTRY DENIES CHINESE FARMERS MOVING TO KAZAKHSTAN
Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi told a press conference in Astana on 8 January that there is no substance to media reports that an unidentified Kazakh official has agreed to lease vacant land in Kazakhstan's Alakol Raion to 3,000 Chinese farmers, who would use it to grow soybeans and wheat and to raise livestock, gazeta.kz reported. The story apparently originated in a media outlet in western China's Xinjiang Province and appeared in the "China Daily" in December. No indication was given of when the agreement was supposed to have been concluded. Many Kazakhs have long feared that China is casting covetous eyes on their sparsely populated country. BB
KAZAKHSTAN DETAINS AZERBAIJANI FISHING VESSEL FOR ALLEGEDLY POACHING STURGEON
Officers of Kazakhstan's Border Service detained an Azerbaijani fishing vessel on 31 December for poaching sturgeon, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 8 January, quoting a Border Service press release. The vessel, registered in Baku, was reportedly found to be carrying 2 tons of sturgeon and 3 kilograms of black caviar. The boat was escorted to the Kazakh port of Bautino, where its special tackle for catching sturgeon was confiscated. The boat's crew faces charges of poaching in Kazakh territorial waters. According to the Border Service, four Azerbaijani vessels were found poaching sturgeon in Kazakh waters last year. BB
KYRGYZ PARLIAMENTARIAN SAYS DRAFT LANGUAGE LAW AIMED AGAINST NORTHERNERS
Kabay Karabekov, chairman of the Kyrgyz lower house's Committee on Public Associations and Information Policy, told a parliamentary session on 8 January that the draft law on the state language currently under debate is intended as an electioneering device to please Kyrgyz speakers by pushing out of government inhabitants of the northern part of the country who do not know Kyrgyz well, akipress.org reported. The government draft requires that all officials have sufficient command of Kyrgyz, the state language, to be able to conduct business in it. Many ethnic Kyrgyz and Russians in the north have only a limited command of Kyrgyz. Karabekov also called for financial support for the study of Russian because of its importance in the CIS, but said there is no need to give Uzbek the status of an official language even though there are about 800,000 ethnic Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan (out of a total population of 5.4 million), because Uzbek is closely related to Kyrgyz. BB
TV AND RADIO BROADCASTING EXPANDING IN EASTERN TAJIKISTAN
Twenty-four television stations broadcasting Tajik state television programs and seven rebroadcasting programs from Russia's RTR began functioning in eastern Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast in 2003, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 8 January. Radio and television reception in the mountainous region has always been a problem for broadcasters. According to an official at the regional radio and television center in Khorog, the administrative capital of the oblast, the new stations reach 70 percent of the oblast's inhabitants. Previously, only slightly more than one-half could receive television signals. The entire population of the oblast is supposed to be able to receive television and radio by 2007. BB
PAID MEDICAL SERVICE INTRODUCED IN TURKMENISTAN
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has issued a decree introducing paid medical services in Turkmenistan, ITAR-TASS reported on 8 January. The objective of the measure is to reduce state health-care expenditures. In 2001, Niyazov cut the number of state-employed health-care workers by several thousand for the same purpose. The present decree requires that specialized medical facilities in Ashgabat and oblast centers become self-supporting. The number of low- and mid-level medical personnel is to be reduced by 15,000. Emergency services, natal care, and children's facilities will continue to provide free services, as will facilities treating cancer, tuberculosis, alcoholism and drug addiction, and mental-health problems. BB
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT PARDONS THOUSANDS
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has signed into law a bill under which roughly 3,880 convicts will be pardoned on the occasion of the forthcoming 60th anniversaries of the 1944 liberation of Belarus from Nazi occupation and the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany in the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War, Belapan reported on 8 January, quoting the presidential press office. Another 14,000 convicts will see their sentences shortened starting on 1 April. Those eligible for amnesty will include war veterans, convicts under 18 years of age, women and single men convicted of minor criminal offenses who have children under 18, pregnant women, retirement-age men and women, and individuals with major disabilities, among others. According to the Interior Ministry, Belarusian prisons are 21 percent over capacity, with 52,500 inmates. AM
UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT TAKES STEP TOWARD TESTING OF MELNYCHENKO TAPES
The Ukrainian government has allocated 850,000 hryvnyas ($159,000) to allow the Justice Ministry to submit audiotape purportedly implicating President Leonid Kuchma and other senior Ukrainian officials in the 2000 killing of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze for international tests to determine its authenticity, Interfax reported on 8 January. The tapes were recorded by Mykola Melnychenko, a former presidential bodyguard. The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office last year petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to perform a joint analysis of the materials. AM
LATVIAN RULING COALITION MEMBERS WANT EQUAL SAY IN NAMING NEXT FOREIGN MINISTER
For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK parliamentary faction head Maris Grinblats and Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers, the chairman of Latvia's First Party, on 8 January said the decision on who will take Sandra Kalniete's place as the next Foreign Minister should be made by all four coalition partners and not just New Era, LETA reported. Kalniete will vacate the post if the cabinet approves her nomination to become a European commissioner. However, New Era faction head Krisjanis Karins said no changes have occurred in the coalition agreement, which outlines for which ministries each of the four coalition partners is responsible, and his party sees no need to give up its right to choose the foreign minister. Karins, who has been mentioned as the top candidate to replace Kalniete, said the party will discuss possible candidates for the post only after the cabinet approves Kalniete as European commissioner. The rift in the ruling coalition opened up after New Era nominated Kalniete for the European commissioner post, a decision its coalition partners believed should have been made jointly. SG
LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT QUESTIONS LEGALITY OF STATE-SECURITY ACTIONS
Rolandas Paksas on 8 January sent a request to the parliament Operative Activities Control Commission to investigate whether the State Security Department violated the law by submitting evidence to the parliamentary ad hoc commission formed to investigate a potential threat to national security (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November 2003), "Lietuvos zinios" reported on 9 January. The commission previously rejected objections Paksas voiced over the department's recording of telephone conversations he had participated in with people whose phones had been tapped, ruling that the department had followed all legal requirements. Commission Chairman Nikolai Medvedev said that the results of the requested investigation should be completed by the end of next week. SG
POLISH DEFENSE MINISTRY SEEKS SITES FOR U.S. MILITARY BASES
The Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" quoted a senior Defense Ministry official on 8 January as saying that the largest of the possible U.S. military bases in Poland would be located in Powidz, near the border between the Wielkopolskie and Pomorskie provinces. "The U.S. has presented us with a general plan for armed forces deployment," the official is quoted as saying. "We are working on proposals that will meet their expectations." The envisaged deployment plan provides for small bases with modest numbers of personnel, without permanent logistics facilities but of strategic importance, the daily reported. Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski announced the same day that consultations are continuing with U.S. officials on the deployment of U.S. troops to Poland and the establishment of bases there, PAP reported. AM
CZECH ROMA DECRY SENTENCES FOR RACIALLY MOTIVATED ATTACKERS
Leaders of the Romany community in the northern Moravian town of Jesenik on 8 January requested a meeting with senior government officials to protest what they consider to be lenient sentences handed down by a local court for three young men convicted of attacking a Romany couple inside their home in June, CTK reported. The group is seeking a meeting with Deputy Premier Petr Mares, Justice Minister Karel Cermak, and government Human Rights Commissioner Jan Jarab. A court produced three-year suspended sentences despite finding them guilty of a racially motivated attack. They faced maximum possible sentences of 10 years in prison. The outraged Romany leaders are seeking a retrial. Mares, who is responsible for interethnic relations for the cabinet, said he intends to meet with the group. He said he is aware of just two cases in which offenders charged with racially motivated crimes received prison sentences, adding that this must raise questions. MS
FORMER SLOVAK DEFENSE MINISTER APPLIES FOR NEW PARTY'S REGISTRATION
Former Defense Minister Ivan Simko formally submitted a request with the Slovak Interior Ministry on 8 January for the registration of a new political party calling itself the Free Forum, TASR reported. The group represents the faction that Simko established within the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) after his dismissal by Premier Mikulas Dzurinda. The Interior Ministry must rule on the request within 30 days. Simko said the new party will be led by a collective leadership until its founding convention, slated for March. The collective leadership will decide on the Free Forum's relations with the current minority coalition and on the possibility of fielding a candidate in the April presidential elections. Simko said on 8 January that he thinks Prime Minister Dzurinda does not fully realize that the ruling coalition is no longer backed by a majority in parliament. Simko added that he is not interested in destabilizing the political situation and wants reforms to continue, but on the other hand said he does not have confidence in Dzurinda. MS
SLOVAK NATIONALISTS SQUABBLE OVER PARTY HEADQUARTERS
Members of the Peter Sulovsky-led Slovak National Party (SNS) broke into the SNS headquarters in Bratislava overnight on 7-8 January, claiming the offices are rightfully theirs, TASR and CTK reported. The incident followed a decision by the Interior Ministry to register Sulovsky's party after a Bratislava regional court nullified the May 2003 congress at which a deeply divided SNS merged with the Real Slovak National Party (PSNS) and elected PSNS Chairman Jan Slota its new leader (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 May and 2 June 2003). Slota charged that Interior Minister Vladimir Palko rushed to register the Sulovsky-led formation in order to garner nationalist support for Palko's Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). Slota called the break-in "a criminal act." MS
HUNGARIAN FINANCE MINISTER-DESIGNATE HINTS AT EURO DELAY
Tibor Draskovics, who is expected to be sworn in as finance minister on 15 February, signaled on 8 January a possible revision of Hungary's 2008 target for adopting the euro, AFP reported. "In responding to the request of the premier, I shall review the agenda of our integration into the eurozone," Draskovics told the MTI news agency from an African holiday spot one day after being designated for the post. "I think that the 'how' of our integration is more important than the 'when.'" Premier Peter Medgyessy requested Finance Minister Csaba Laszlo's resignation on 6 January after data suggested that Hungary's 2003 budget deficit reached 5.6 percent of GDP, nearly double the ceiling for joining the single European currency zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 January 2003). MS
HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT TAKES SIDES IN TRANSYLVANIAN POLITICAL RIFT
A senior official said on 8 January that the Hungarian government does not plan to invite representatives of the recently formed National Council of Transylvanian Hungarians (CNMT in Romanian, EMNT in Hungarian) to the Hungarian Standing Conference meeting in February, "Nepszabadsag" reported the next day. Vilmos Szabo, the state secretary for Hungarians abroad in the prime minister's office, said the cabinet considers the Democratic Federation of Hungarians in Romania the only legitimate representative of ethnic Hungarians in Romania. "We need some time to see to what extent Hungarians in Transylvania support the EMNT," Szabo said. The EMNT, established on 13 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003), immediately demanded autonomy for the Hungarian minority in general and territorial autonomy for the Szekler lands in eastern Transylvania. Hungary's opposition FIDESZ party has meanwhile invited leaders of the Szekler National Council to Budapest to discuss a draft autonomy plan for the Szekler region, the same daily reported. MSZ
EXPERTS SAY NEARLY ONE-THIRD OF SERBS LIVE BELOW POVERTY LINE
A team of UN and Serbian experts concluded recently that 30 percent of the Serbian population lives below the poverty level, Deutsche Welle's Serbian Service reported on 8 January. One of the Serbian experts said he sees no easy way to remedy the situation. The broadcast noted that some aspects of the poverty problem seem to grow steadily worse. For example, the EU allows Serbian farmers to export meat to its member states, but the farmers are raising fewer and fewer animals because they cannot afford fodder. The broadcast stressed that the political leadership has played a role in the growth of poverty. Many voters opted for extremist nationalist candidates in the 28 December parliamentary elections out of frustration with the current leadership, even though the extremists offered no concrete plan to raise the standard of living, the broadcast noted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5, 6, and 7 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003). PM
ROW REPORTED OVER NEW ARMY CHIEF IN MACEDONIA
President Boris Trajkovski and Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski have reportedly clashed over the nomination of the successor to the outgoing chief of General Staff, General Metodi Stamboliski, "Vest" reported on 8 January. While Trajkovski favors Brigadier General Gjorgji Bojadziev, Buckovski would rather see the younger Major General Miroslav Stojanovski as the next army chief. According to the daily, the international community would also prefer the Western-educated Stojanovski. Under the constitution, it is the right of Trajkovski, who is the army's supreme commander, to nominate the chief of General Staff. Some observers believe that Trajkovski's refusal to sign the new citizenship law and his insistence on Bojadziev are attempts to regain the support of the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) in the presidential elections that are due later in 2004. Both Trajkovski and Bojadziev hail from Strumica. UB
CROATIA'S SERBIAN LEADER UPBEAT ON NEW GOVERNMENT
Milorad Pupovac, who heads Croatia's Serbian National Council (SNV) and is one of that country's top ethnic Serbian political leaders, told "Vecernji list" of 9 January that he is optimistic about the new government of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Pupovac, who remained in Croatia throughout the 1991-95 conflict, noted that Sanader recently sent Christmas greetings to Croatia's Serbian Orthodox population and attended a traditional Serbian Orthodox Yule log ceremony. Pupovac said that mutual trust between the Serbs and the government has grown markedly in the course of recent discussions about how Serbian leaders will play a key role in the government's refugee-return and housing-reconstruction programs. Pupovac called Sanader a man who keeps his word and does what he says (see "RFE/RL "Balkan Report," 4 December 2003). PM
ROMANIA TO TRANSFER HUSSEIN REGIME FUNDS TO IRAQ
The cabinet decided at its 8 January meeting to return to Iraq all funds and other financial resources placed in Romanian banks by the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, Romanian television and Mediafax reported. The decision also applies to funds belonging to Iraqi companies and to Iraqi citizens who served the previous regime. The funds are to be transferred to the Iraqi Development Fund. At the same meeting, the cabinet lifted the ban on importing Iraqi goods, but maintained the interdiction on importing or exporting military equipment and ammunition to Iraq, with the exception of military equipment specifically solicited by the new Iraqi authorities. Meanwhile, Romania, which recently became a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, took over the chairmanship of Security Council Committee 1518, which monitors the implementation of Security Council resolutions on Iraq. MS
ISRAEL, RABIN FAMILY SNUB EXTREMIST ROMANIAN PARTY'S PLAN TO UNVEIL STATUE
Slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's son and daughter and his former chief of cabinet, Shimon Sheves, have said in a statement that they will boycott the Greater Romania Party's (PRM) unveiling of a statue of Rabin in Brasov on 15 January, Mediafax and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 January 2004). Officials at the Israeli Embassy in Bucharest cited by AFP said neither Ambassador Rodica Gordon nor any other Israeli diplomats will attend the ceremony. Dalia and Yuval Rabin said in a statement that "we have no intention of attending this event organized by a person with extreme-right views and who has nothing to do with the memory of the former prime minister." Rabin's son and daughter also said they "vehemently protest against any attempt by [Corneliu] Vadim Tudor to use Yitzhak Rabin's memory toward political ends," AFP reported. Meanwhile, Mediafax reported that Israeli spin doctor Eyal Arad told Ambassador Gordon in Bucharest on 8 January that his Arad Communications company has not yet signed an agreement with the PRM to manage the party's 2004 election campaign. The Israeli Foreign Ministry opposes such an agreement. MS
FORMER ROMANIAN PRESIDENT PROTESTS VIOLENCE AGAINST JOURNALISTS
Former President Emil Constantinescu, chairman of Popular Action, has sent letters to U.S. congressmen and to ambassadors representing NATO and EU countries in Bucharest warning against the increasing aggression directed at Romanian journalists, Mediafax reported on 8 January, citing Popular Action Deputy Chairwoman Zoe Petre. She said Popular Action wants the European Parliament to "debate and warn the Romanian government of the danger to democracy and to NATO and EU integration" posed by the increasing aggression toward the media. In his letter, Constantinescu said President Ion Iliescu, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, and members of the cabinet are attempting to "intimidate" the media and ordinary citizens in an effort to "create the conditions for instituting political control over society, which is incompatible with democracy and constitutional rights." Meanwhile, AP reported on 7 January that popular television host Stelian Tanase's program "The Meat Grinder" has been dropped by Romanian Television. The ruling Social Democratic Party had on several occasions protested Tanase's alleged rightist sympathies (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 5 December 2003). MS
BULGARIAN MILITARY TO UNDERGO ANTITERRORISM TRAINING PRIOR TO SERVICE ABROAD
The government on 8 January announced that Interior Ministry specialists will provide Bulgarian military units with antiterrorism training prior to their deployment abroad, vsekiden.com reported. The decision was made during a meeting between members of the government and President Georgi Parvanov, who suggested that a parliamentary commission of inquiry be formed to investigate the 27 December suicide attacks in Karbala, Iraq, in which five Bulgarian and two Thai soldiers were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003 and 8 January 2004). UB
BULGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY STEPS UP SECURITY MEASURES
The Foreign Ministry has heightened its security measures after telejournalists successfully smuggled a grenade launcher into its headquarters on 6 January, vsekiden.com reported. The journalists, working for the private Nova Televiziya, were detained for 24 hours following the incident. Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said such experiments are a common practice among journalists worldwide and should not ruin the good relations between the government and the media. The grenade launcher was provided by Sofia's Military-Historical Museum. UB
LOYA JIRGA APPROVES CONSTITUTION, BUT HARD PART MAY HAVE ONLY JUST BEGUN
After three weeks of often-contentious debate, the new Afghan Constitution -- the country's seventh written constitution -- was approved by consensus rather than through a vote.
On 4 January, a majority of the 502 delegates participating in the Constitutional Loya Jirga signaled their endorsement of the constitution by silently rising to their feet in a huge tent on the outskirts of Kabul. The agreement was a relief for the Afghan government and its allies.
Acrimonious debate, ethnic divisions, and, particularly, the boycott of the voting process on 1 January by more than 40 percent of the delegates had sparked fears that an agreement would not be reached.
On 3 January, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad held closed-door negotiations with rival delegates in an effort to get the assembly back on track. A compromise agreement was reached, and the constitution was approved.
Dadfar Sepanta, a professor of political science at Aachen University in Germany and an expert on Afghanistan, considers the Constitutional Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, a success for the people of Afghanistan because it makes the government accountable and guarantees their rights. "The ratification of the constitution is a huge success for the Afghan people for several reasons," he said. "First of all, the structure of the Afghan government, the governmental institutions," and the "performance of the government and the rights of the Afghan citizens, will have a legal framework."
Sepanta said that, after more than two decades of war, the fact that delegates representing different ethnic groups and minorities in Afghanistan were able to sit and discuss the constitution should also be considered a victory. "Despite all the difficulties of the past 24 years, where Afghans solved their problems with force and guns, this time -- with the help of the international community -- they could, during 22 days, in a peaceful manner have a dialogue with each other," he said.
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has said the new constitution reflects the views of all Afghans. He also told the assembly: "There is no winner or loser. Everybody has won."
Analysts, however, said Karzai has emerged as the main winner, since the strong presidential system he advocated was finally approved. After much debate, little was changed from the original draft. Rivals of Karzai, led by former Mujahedin commanders who wanted to curb the presidential powers, did manage to strengthen parliament with amendments granting veto power over key presidential appointments and policies. The president will also have two vice presidents.
Vikram Parekh, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul, raised doubts over whether the new constitution ultimately will be supported by different factions within Afghanistan. "It was a success for...Karzai, and it's also a success for the United States, which was backing him wholeheartedly in this particular respect," he said. "But in terms of whether it will be a document that will be inclusive and gain the support of the different sections of the population, that I'm much more doubtful of."
The main split at the assembly was between two groups -- the Pashtun supporters of Karzai's government and the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other smaller ethnic groups led by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Islamic conservative Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. The status of languages was one of the main issues that delayed the agreement. Dari and Pashtu will be the two official languages, but minority languages have been granted official status in some northern regions.
Sepanta warned that the ethnic divides that emerged at the Loya Jirga could bode ill for the future. "The problem is that politics in Afghanistan -- particularly in the last 24 years and specifically...[during the Constitutional Loya Jirga] -- had a strong ethnic and tribal color," he said. "It means that those ethnic issues that exist in Afghanistan's structure became a political and ideological tool." "If these [ethnic issues] are not overcome democratically," Sepanta added, "then my concern is that the warlords and politicians will take advantage of the ethnic differences, and this is, unfortunately, the only way you can mobilize people. It's not possible anymore to mobilize people in the name of Islam, communism, or similar ideologies. The only negative and destructive tool that exists in Afghanistan are ethnic issues."
According to Parekh, the process of adopting the constitution might have sharpened existing ethnic divisions. "That process of adopting the constitution...may have in some ways made the process of implementing it considerably harder," Parekh said. "I think Karzai's standing as somebody who represents all of the different sections of Afghanistan -- all of the different ethnic [groups] and communities and the Sunnis and the Shi'as -- this has probably been damaged to a certain degree by the real divide between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns that emerged during this Constitutional Loya Jirga."
The ratification of the new Afghan Constitution is a key step in the UN-backed Bonn process and paves the way for the country's first democratic elections, tentatively scheduled for June. But many analysts believe the actual implementation of the constitution will depend on the security situation in the country.
"The acceptance and implementation of the constitution depends to a big extent on whether disarmament [of warlords] will be implemented in Afghanistan, whether there will be an end to the rule of different regional commanders, and whether the authority of the central government will be strengthened," Sepanta said.
Some analysts said that several articles of the constitution are not clearly defined and that others are open to interpretation. Article 3, for example, says that "no law can be contrary to the belief and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." Some believe this may open the door to a strict implementation of Islamic law. Parekh said that one of the main challenges that lie ahead in implementing the new constitution "will be just simply clearing up a lot of the ambiguities." As examples he cited a commission for the implementation of the constitution that "doesn't clarify at all what the powers of that commission are going to be" and also stressed the need to clarify "conflicts between secular sources of law, like international human rights law and Islamic law."
On 5 January, a spokesman for Karzai admitted that putting the constitution into practice in a country that has experienced more than 20 years of war will be a major challenge. "Now that Afghanistan is entering a new era, adoption of a new constitution is vital," spokesman Jawed Ludin said. "But more important now is the implementation of this constitution throughout the country."
Golnaz Esfandiari is an RFE/RL correspondent.
HAZARA TRAVELERS DIE IN EXECUTION-STYLE SLAYINGS IN CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN
Twelve ethnic Hazara men were tied up and executed in a remote area straddling the Helmand and Oruzgan provinces of Afghanistan on 6 January, "The New York Times" reported on 9 January. The travelers were reportedly resting at a roadside hotel when unidentified assailants took them outside and tied their hands before killing them. "The attack had all the hallmarks of Taliban militants," the daily quoted police and human rights officials as saying, without going into details. Colonel Mohammad Ayyub, a police official in Helmand Province, described it as a calculated attack apparently committed by "those people who are against national unity [in Afghanistan] and are making problems between tribes." "I am sure it is those terrorists -- Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and followers of [Hizb-e Islami leader] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar," Ayyub said despite also noting that an investigation has not been completed. Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said on 8 January that while it is likely that "terrorists" were involved, there have been many tribal disputes in the area in which the killings took place, Hindukosh news agency reported. AT
U.S. ENVOY TO AFGHANISTAN DISMISSES UN WARNINGS ON ELECTIONS...
U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad on 8 January rejected warnings from the United Nations questioning the June deadline for Afghan parliamentary and presidential elections in light of the current security environment in the country, AFP reported. "That's not my view," Khalilzad said of UN officials' statements suggesting that voter registration cannot take place if registration teams are denied access to broad parts of the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2004). "We need to take a look at the situation." Khalilzad conceded that voter registration has been "slower than expected," but said he does not believe the situation should prevent elections in "June, or this summer." AT
...AND AFGHAN INTERIOR MINISTER AGREES
Interior Minister Jalali told a news conference in Kabul on 8 January that the Afghan Transitional Administration "decides about the elections, but presently there is no reason to postpone elections," Hindukosh news agency reported. "If there is any problem in future, decisions will be taken at the time," he added. AT
NEW PROVINCIAL RECONSTRUCTION TEAM BEGINS WORK IN EASTERN AFGHAN PROVINCE
A Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) led by U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan was inaugurated at a ceremony in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar Province, on 8 January, Afghanistan Television reported. The Jalalabad PRT is expected to provide humanitarian and security assistance for an estimated 1.5 million residents of the Nangarhar and neighboring Laghman provinces. There are now eight PRTs in Afghanistan, with that number expected to rise to at least 12 in the coming months. NATO, which assumed command of a PRT in Konduz on 6 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2004), is expected to take over more PRTs in less volatile northern Afghanistan once that military alliance's members back such missions, freeing up the U.S.-led coalition's resources to work in the south and east of the country. AT
IRAN REPORTEDLY RESUMES ARMS SHIPMENTS TO LEBANESE HIZBALLAH
The provision of weapons from Iran to Hizballah via Syria resumed last week, Israel Television reported on 8 January. The shipments were suspended shortly before Operation Iraqi Freedom. Under the guise of flying humanitarian goods to victims of the Bam earthquake, the Syrian aircraft reportedly returned to Damascus "loaded with weapons." These weapons were unloaded in Syria and transported by truck to Lebanon, according to the report. BS
IRAN'S SUPREME LEADER DISMISSES U.S. EARTHQUAKE AID
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in an 8 January speech in Qom dismissed U.S. aid to victims of the Bam earthquake, saying it was a "small amount" and politically motivated, Iranian state radio reported. Khamenei said the aid is not connected with "America's continuous, permanent, deep, fundamental, and never-ending animosity toward Iran." He also accused the United States of tyrannizing Iran "for many years" and of plotting against the Islamic system. The United States has "continuously defended the usurper and occupying Zionist regime,... carried out oppressive measures in Iraq and Afghanistan," and has "ominous intentions toward the Islamic system, the people's beliefs, and our interests," Khamenei said. "Its intention is to have a powerful presence in Iran and to devour Iran's vital and financial resources," he added, further warning against the United States' "phony posturing" and "phony smile." BS
IRAN UNWILLING TO TRADE WITH UNITED STATES
Economy and Finance Minister Tahmasb Mazaheri said on 7 January that there will be no trade deals with the United States "until Washington changes [its] behavior toward Iran," IRNA reported. Mazaheri said the resumption of economic ties depends on the resumption of diplomatic relations. BS
NO VOTE-COUNTING SOFTWARE FOR IRANIAN ELECTION
A recent letter from the Guardians Council, which is tasked with supervising elections, to the Interior Ministry stated that the latter organization has yet to present it with acceptable vote-counting software for use in the February parliamentary election, "Iran" reported on 5 January. The letter went on to say the deadline for this has been extended three times. It concluded by noting that the Central Supervisory Board has developed "reliable software" that the Guardians Council is prepared to let the Interior Ministry use. BS
REFORMIST IRANIAN POLITICIAN PREDICTS COALITION VICTORY AT POLLS
Hojatoleslam Rasul Montajabnia, a member of the central council of the reformist Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mubarez), has predicted that the composition of the legislature will not change in February's parliamentary election if the reformists stick together, "Nasim-i Saba" reported on 5 January. If the 2nd of Khordad coalition, which is named after the date of President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's election on 23 May 1997, stays united, he said, the reformists will continue to be the legislature's majority. There could be some changes in individual parliamentarians, but their affiliations will remain the same. "If all candidates do not become united and if there is a split among the groups," Montajabnia warned, "then the opposing faction would be able to win the majority with the minimum of votes." BS
U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE SAYS NO HARD EVIDENCE LINKING IRAQ TO AL-QAEDA
Colin Powell said on 8 January that he did not have hard evidence of a link between the deposed Iraqi regime and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, despite claims he made at the UN last year that such a link existed, nytimes.com reported on 9 January. "I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection," Powell told reporters at a news conference in Washington. "But I think the possibility of such connections did exist, and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did." Powell told the UN on 5 February (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 9 February 2003) that a "sinister nexus" existed "between Iraq and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder.... Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda lieutenants," nytimes.com reported. KR
SHI'ITE LEADER REITERATES CALL FOR ELECTIONS IN IRAQ
Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has reportedly reiterated his call for elections in Iraq, Iraqi media reported on 8 January. According to "Al-Zaman," al-Sistani, the supreme religious authority in Iraq, issued a statement from Al-Najaf saying that Iraqi experts' reports confirm that national elections could be held with a degree of credibility and transparency before the June deadline that marks the transfer of power from the coalition to Iraqis. He suggested that in lieu of a current census, eligibility to participate in the elections could be based on the possession of ration cards and other unspecified guarantees of citizenship. Governing Council member Mahmud Uthman, however, told London's "Al-Hayat" of 6 January that use of the ration card is not feasible, since they can be forged easily, and most cards carry the names of deceased family members and do not list the ages of family members. Al-Sistani called on the UN to study the issue, saying that if elections are not feasible, the world body should recommend another mechanism, since he believes that the 15 November agreement on elections between the Governing Council and the coalition will not ensure fair representation of all Iraqis in the interim national assembly. KR
COALITION ASKS KDP, PUK TO CLOSES OFFICES IN KIRKUK, WITHDRAW MILITIAMEN
Coalition officials have reportedly asked the two main Kurdish groups -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- to close their offices in the city of Kirkuk and to operate out of one center each, according to an 8 January report by the "Voice of Iraq." Coalition officials also requested that both groups withdraw their militiamen from the city to make it a weapons-free zone. Kirkuk has been riddled by violence in recent weeks as Kurds have clashed with Arabs and Turkomans. All three groups claim rights in the city, which witnessed a policy of forced Arabization under the deposed Hussein regime. "Voice of Iraq" also reported that coalition troops have requested the withdrawal of KDP and PUK militiamen from Tikrit. KR
MOVEMENT REPORTEDLY SEEKING REFERENDUM ON KURDISH INDEPENDENCE
Kurds in northern Iraq are reportedly seeking to hold a referendum in support of separation from the Iraqi government, telegraph.co.uk reported on 9 January. According to the unconfirmed report, the Kurdish Referendum Committee, which is run by individuals working outside the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, have been soliciting signatures across northern Iraq in favor of independence. Some PUK officials, too, have voiced support for the referendum. "Politically it is very good for us, because independence is a very delicate issue that we cannot push," said Jamal Mirza Aziz, PUK deputy minister for cooperation. "But in the end, the referendum can help us achieve our dream" of a Kurdish state. However, Aziz reportedly cautioned the petitioners, saying that the Kurdish "dream" cannot be achieved without violence. KR