PUTIN, POWELL HOLD TALKS...
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on 26 January, Russian and Western media reported. Putin assured Powell that Russia's relations with the United States will be "stable and predictable," adding that "the foundations of Russian-U.S. relations are so solid that any tactical differences related to...international relations and the protection of our national interests can be resolved," Interfax reported. Russia and the United States, he added, are "doing well in trade, economic cooperation, the fight against terrorism, and in Afghanistan." "Discussion is continuing" on the more contentious issue of Iraq, Putin said, adding that "we, like you, believe the UN should return to Iraq." Russia, he noted, is also "discussing" the possibility of writing off some or all of Iraq's $8 billion debt, ITAR-TASS reported on 26 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2003). Putin also referred to U.S. President George W. Bush's "ambitious plans" to send humans to the moon and Mars. "I think there are things we can work together on in this area," Putin said. JB
...AS FOREIGN MINISTER ACCENTUATES THE POSITIVE...
U.S. Secretary of State Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov held a joint news conference on 26 January following Powell's meeting with President Putin, Interfax reported. Ivanov said the "sincere and open" meeting was conducted "in a very friendly and constructive atmosphere" and "reflected the spirit of relations between Russian and the United States." Among the subjects discussed, Ivanov said, were nuclear issues, including the situation on the Korean peninsula; Georgia, including the issues of Russian military bases and Abkhazia; and relations between Russia and NATO. Ivanov said Russia intends to cooperate closely with the United States in fighting terrorism and combating nuclear proliferation, ITAR-TASS reported. Powell, for his part, focused on Georgia, saying that assistance to its new government is "an area where Russia and the United States can cooperate with one another and not find a source for competition." The U.S. military presence in Georgia "was to help the Georgians deal with terrorist threats that existed in Georgia," Powell said, adding that the United States has no plans for military bases in Georgia. JB
...DESPITE CRITICAL WORDS FROM HIS U.S. COUNTERPART
The atmosphere in U.S. Secretary of State Powell's meetings with President Putin and Foreign Minister Ivanov was friendly, despite a critical commentary by Powell that "Izvestiya" published on 26 January. In it, Powell said "Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government"; that political power "is not yet fully tethered to law"' and that "key aspects of civil society -- free media and political-party development, for example -- have not yet sustained an independent presence." Powell also expressed concern about "certain aspects" of "internal Russian policy in Chechnya" and toward "neighbors that emerged from the former Soviet Union." While the United States recognizes Russia's territorial integrity and "natural interest in lands that abut it," he wrote, it recognizes "no less the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors." Powell told reporters that the "Izvestiya" article was "one friend speaking to another" and in no way an attempt "to interfere in [the] internal dynamics of Russian political life," Reuters reported on 26 January. JB
MEDIA SEE WARM WORDS MASKING U.S.-RUSSIAN TENSIONS
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on 27 January that the friendly words used by both sides to describe U.S.-Russian relations cannot camouflage the "very substantial" disagreements between the two countries, particularly over Georgia and Russia's domestic political direction. U.S. President Bush is in a particularly difficult situation, the paper wrote, because he is facing re-election and "must prove to domestic critics (opponents from the Democratic Party and neo-conservatives in his own camp) that Putin, whom he trusts, has not taken the course of blocking American interests in various parts of the world." Likewise, gazeta.ru wrote on 26 January that despite the friendliness between Powell and Ivanov, "the tensions in Russian-American relations were felt at the press conference," during which U.S. journalists asked about the future of Russian democracy, while Russian journalists asked about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. JB
RUSSIA WINS TENDER TO DEVELOP SAUDI GAS FIELD
Saudi Arabia's Oil and Natural Resources Ministry announced on 26 January that LUKoil won a tender to explore and develop the smallest of three gas fields located near the desert kingdom's Ghawar oil field, which is the world's largest, "Vedomosti" reported on 27 January. LUKoil beat ExxonMobil and unnamed Chinese companies in the tender, the newspaper reported. LUKoil will sign a 40-year contract with the Saudi government in March for the exploration and development of the gas field and a LUKoil subsidiary, LUKoil Overseas, will set up a joint venture with the state-run Saudi Aramco, RBK reported on 26 January. LUKoil Overseas will hold an 80-percent stake in the joint venture. The project, the first of its kind between Russia and Saudi Arabia, follows the signing of an oil-industry cooperation agreement between the two countries during a visit to Moscow by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah last September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2003). JB
FINANCE MINISTER: OIL MAJORS THAT DODGED TAXES AREN'T OFF THE HOOK
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told Britain's "The Times" in an interview published on 26 January that the Russian government will continue to pursue oil companies -- including Yukos, Sibneft, and LUKoil -- over alleged unpaid back taxes. In the interview, conducted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Kudrin said the government is "currently investigating the earlier activities of oil companies." If they avoided paying taxes by using loopholes that were "within the legal framework" and "permitted by legislation at the time...there will be no punishment of these companies," Kudrin said, adding that the oil companies "are now actively consulting with our Tax Ministry." The Tax Ministry has already presented Yukos with a bill for 98 billion rubles ($3.4 billion) for allegedly unpaid taxes for 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2003). Asked about the jailing of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, Kudrin said: "Such cases may damage the investment image of Russia, but if there is a real crime behind the story then this crime shall be punished regardless of consequences." JB
PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATION OF YUKOS SECURITY OFFICER COMPLETED
A source in the Prosecutor-General's Office said on 26 January that it has completed its preliminary investigation of Aleksei Pichugin, a senior official with Yukos' security service, Interfax reported. Pichugin is accused of a number of crimes, including organizing murders, attempted murder, and making threats of murder, the source said. Specifically, Pichugin is accused of masterminding the murder of a couple in Tambov and an attempt on the life of Olga Kostina, a former aide to former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii. The source in the Prosecutor-General's Office said the office is also investigating an alleged accomplice of Pichugin's, Aleksei Peshkun. Pichugin has been in Moscow's Lefortovo remand prison since the end of June and requests by his lawyers, who have alleged that he was drugged while in custody, for his release because of ill health have been rejected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 31 July 2003). JB
PROSECUTOR CALLED IN TO INVESTIGATE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE...
The Central Election Commission (TsIK) on 26 January asked the Moscow prosecutor's office to investigate charges that campaign workers for Motherland faction leader and presidential hopeful Sergei Glazev have been trying to buy voters' support, gazeta.ru reported. TsIK Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov told reporters that the commission's request was prompted by an ORT news report (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Votes 2003-4," http://www.rferl.org/specials/russianelection). Glazev has called the report a "fabrication" that was ordered up by the presidential administration. Gazeta.ru speculated that the prosecutor's office will pursue the case in order to give the TsIK a basis for rejecting Glazev's registration as a candidate. Glazev told gazeta.ru that his supporters have gathered 2.5 million signatures in support of his candidacy. Potential candidates are required to submit at least 2 million valid signatures to the TsIK by 28 January. JAC
...AS SECOND CANDIDATE SUBMITS SIGNATURES
Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov submitted 2,499,589 signatures to the TsIK on 26 January, RBK reported. When asked by a reporter whether his failure to win the presidency could negatively affect his future career in the upper legislative chamber, Mironov said he does not see any link between his work there and his participation in the presidential election. President Putin's supporters reportedly submitted about 2.5 million signatures on 23 January. JAC
CRACK APPEARS IN MOTHERLAND ALLIANCE...
On 24 January, the press service for Motherland faction leader Glazev issued a statement in which Glazev accused fellow Motherland leader and State Duma Deputy Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin of trying "to mislead the voters" with a statement that Motherland's leadership has not decided to support Glazev's presidential bid. The next day, Glazev denied having issued the statement, saying that he considered it a "gross provocation" aimed at "creating contradictions within our bloc." On 26 January, Rogozin told NTV that no rift has occurred and that he and Glazev disagree only about tactics. JAC
...AS FISSURE DEEPENS AMONG COMMUNISTS
On 26 January, the Communist Party's presidium issued an order to party members who work on the executive political committee of the People's Patriotic Union (NPSR) to stop all work with that organization, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 27 January, citing a party press release. The presidium also asked the party's secretariat to ensure the full financial independence of the Communist Party from the NPSR executive political committee. According to the daily, the aim of the order is to deprive NPSR leader and State Duma Deputy Gennadii Semigin (Communist) of levers of influence within the party. JAC
FEDERATION COUNCIL CHAIRMAN NOMINATES TWO NEW DEPUTIES
Federation Council Chairman Mironov has proposed council members Dmitrii Mezentsev (Irkutsk) and Svetlana Orlova (Kemerovo) as candidates for the post of council deputy chairpeople, RIA-Novosti reported on 26 January. One of the positions has remained empty since the chamber refused to confirm Mironov's candidate, Valentina Petrenko, for the post in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 June 2003). The other will open up when current council First Deputy Chairman Valerii Goreglyad officially steps down (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004). When that happens, the position will automatically be downgraded from first deputy chairperson to simply deputy chairperson. Mezentsev previously headed the Center for Strategic Research. He was born in St. Petersburg, and he worked in the city's mayoral office in 1991-96, overlapping President Putin's time in that administration. JAC
OLIGARCH WINS PEOPLE'S GRATITUDE, SUPPORT
Sotsio-Metriks, a Moscow-based sociological firm, has conducted a survey asking people about standards of living in various regions of Russia, Regnum reported on 26 January. According to the survey, the highest level of satisfaction was found in the far northern Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, which is headed by Governor and oligarch Roman Abramovich. Fifty-six percent of respondents in Chukotka said their standard of living has improved "in recent times," which was double the rate found in any other region covered by the survey. Only 11 percent of Chukotka respondents described their situation as bad or getting worse. Less than 4 percent reported experiencing difficulties connected with health care, education, or the environment. Ninety-five percent of Chukotka respondents also positively evaluated Abramovich's work, compared with a rate of less than half in Pskov and Tula oblasts. The sociologists concluded that if Abramovich runs for a second term, he would be supported by more than 90 percent of the electorate. JAC
GOSKOMSTAT TO TRY FIRST AGRICULTURAL CENSUS SINCE 1920S
The State Statistics Committee has announced that it will conduct an experimental agricultural census in four Russian regions in August, ITAR-TASS reported on 26 January, citing committee First Deputy Chairman Konstantin Laikam. The survey will be conducted in Krasnoyarsk and Krasnodar krais and Saratov and Penza oblasts. The goal of the experiment is to obtain complete information about the real situation on large-scale farms, kolkhozy, small farms, and subsidiary smallholdings since the beginning of agricultural reforms. A full inventory of the agricultural sector won't take place until 2006. According to Laikam, the last such census was taken in 1920. JAC
EU TO CONSIDER INCLUDING SOUTH CAUCASUS IN 'WIDER EUROPE' PROGRAM
Meeting in Brussels on 26 January, EU Foreign Ministers agreed to monitor closely future developments in Georgia, in particular the success of planned anti-corruption measures and economic reforms, Turan and an RFE/RL special correspondent reported. EU Commissioner for International Affairs Javier Solana will take a decision by late June on whether to recommend that the three South Caucasus states be included into the EU's Wider Europe program, from which they were excluded when it was first announced last year. LF
ARMENIA SENTENCES FOUR FOR SPYING FOR AZERBAIJAN
After a trial lasting eight months, a Yerevan court passed sentence on 26 January on four Armenian citizens of Russian descent found guilty of spying for Azerbaijan between 1993 and their arrest in August 2002, Interfax and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2003). Nina Shilina, who prosecutors said headed the spy ring, was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment; her husband Edgar Filkov to 13 years; and Filkov's brother, Aleskandar Gasparian, and cousin, Ivetta Filkova, to 10 years each. Shilina was also found guilty of planning to bomb a Yerevan hotel in May 1993, an incident that security forces managed to avert. All four pleaded not guilty. Shilina said the prosecution did not produce any evidence to substantiate the charges. She admitted, however, that she traveled regularly over the past decade to Georgia, where she passed information to Georgian-speaking persons whom she believed were representatives of a regional charity. LF
AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PARTY CALLS FOR CIVIL ACCORD
The Central Council of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) has issued a statement urging a rapprochement between the authorities and the demoralized opposition in order to address more effectively the problems the country faces, in particular the unresolved Karabakh conflict, Turan reported on 26 January. The statement calls specifically for the adoption of a new national-security concept and military doctrine; the creation of new jobs; measures to improve the economic situation in rural areas; and structural reforms within the administration that would target corruption and red tape. Several prominent leading members have quit AMIP in recent months (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 January 2004). LF
FURTHER CONVICTION IN PROMINENT AZERBAIJANI HISTORIAN'S MURDER
Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes sentenced Mais Abdullaev to 10 years' imprisonment on 26 January after convicting him of involvement in the 1997 murder of prominent historian Zia Buniatov, Turan and ITAR-TASS reported. Seven men were sentenced three years ago for their roles in the killing. The prosecution claimed that they had connections with the Vilayati Hezbollah-al-Fagikh terrorist organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2001). Abdullaev, who was detained last summer by Ukrainian intelligence and extradited to Baku, was accused of arranging for the seven to cross the border into Azerbaijan illegally from Iran, according to zerkalo.az on 27 January. He was found guilty of involvement with a criminal group, bribing a state official, and instigation to violate border regulations. LF
DATES SET FOR AZERBAIJANI, GEORGIAN PRESIDENTS' MOSCOW VISITS
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's planned visit to Moscow will take place on 5-6 February, Caucasus Press reported on 26 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). Mikheil Saakashvili, who was inaugurated as Georgian president on 25 January, will travel to Moscow on 15 February, Caucasus Press reported. LF
SIX KILLED IN SHOOTOUT IN WESTERN GEORGIA
Four Georgian police officers were killed on 26 January and seven more injured when an unidentified armed group attacked a police patrol post in Tsalendjikha Raion, Georgian media reported. Two of the attackers also died in the exchange of fire, one of whom was subsequently identified as a resident of Abkhazia's Gali Raion. Caucasus Press claimed the attackers were members of a Georgian-Abkhaz criminal gang. Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze, who will travel to western Georgia on 27 January to investigate the incident, linked the attack to a recently launched Georgian crackdown on smuggling across the internal border between the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia and Georgia. LF
GEORGIAN GOVERNMENT RESIGNS
Following the 25 January inauguration of the new Georgian president, government ministers have submitted their resignations in accordance with the Georgian Constitution, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. Minister of State Zurab Zhvania said the same day that a new government will be named within one week, and the criteria for selecting new ministers will be "professionalism, [an unsullied] reputation, and patriotism," Caucasus Press reported. Former parliamentary Economic Policy Committee Chairman Vano Merabishvili, for years a close associate of Saakashvili and a leading member of his National Movement, is to head the Georgian National Security Committee, according to the independent television station Rustavi-2. LF
PROSECUTOR SUMMONS FORMER GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S SON-IN-LAW
Gia Djokhtaberidze, who is married to former President Eduard Shevardnadze's daughter, Manana, was summoned on 26 January to the Prosecutor-General's Office for questioning about suspected financial irregularities within the mobile phone company Magticom, which he has headed since its inception in 1996, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili told journalists the same day that he also plans to reopen an investigation into possible irregularities in the communications sector during the late 1990s when Pridon Indjia was communications minister. Indjia is currently a parliamentary deputy and, consequently, enjoys immunity from prosecution. In 1998, Indjia threatened to take legal action against then-parliamentary State and Legal Affairs Committee Chairman Mikheil Saakashvili for having accused him of misappropriating millions of dollars during the illegal privatization of Georgia's telecommunications network (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 1998). The daily "Alia" on 27 January claimed without citing its sources that Okruashvili has for years defended the interests of Magticom's main rival, Geocell. LF
GEORGIAN SOCCER FEDERATION PRESIDENT RELEASED FROM CUSTODY
Merab Zhordania, who was arrested last month on suspicion of tax evasion, was released on 26 January and the legal proceedings against him terminated, Caucasus Press reported. Zhordania was accused of failing to pay taxes while serving as president of the Tbilisi Dynamo soccer club (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 18 December 2003). On 15 January, Zhordania transferred the 741,889 laris ($344,000) in question to the state budget. LF
SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADERS FEAR NEW GEORGIAN AGGRESSION
Eduard Kokoyty, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, has expressed concern that the Georgian authorities are preparing to launch a military campaign under the pretext of a crackdown on smuggling in an attempt to bring his breakaway republic back under the control of the central Georgian government, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported on 26 January. South Ossetian parliament speaker Stanislav Kochiev similarly told the head of the OSCE office in Tskhinvali, Gancho Ganchev, that recent predictions by President Saakashvili and Georgian Patriarch Ilia II that Georgia's territorial unity will soon be restored have triggered alarm among the population of South Ossetia, Interfax reported on 26 January. LF
NEW HEAD OF KAZAKH NATIONAL BANK NAMED
The Kazakh parliament on 26 January unanimously approved the nomination of Anvar Saidenov as chairman of the National Bank, gazeta.kz reported. Previous National Bank Chairman Grigorii Marchenko was appointed first deputy prime minister on 6 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2004), in charge of overseeing the financial sector and the economy. Commenting on Saidenov's confirmation, President Nursultan Nazarbaev noted that the country's financial system and the National Bank have received high marks from international financial institutions. Marchenko described his successor as one of Kazakhstan's best financial specialists. BB
PARLIAMENT APPROVES GOVERNMENT DRAFT OF ELECTION-LAW AMENDMENTS
A joint session of both chambers of the Kazakh parliament approved government-drafted amendments to the country's election law in their first reading on 26 January, somewhat to the surprise of political observers who had expected a stormy discussion, Kazinform reported. The swift approval was partially attributed to government flexibility. According to Justice Minister Onalsyn Zhumabekov, the government basically agreed to draft provisions along the lines of suggestions offered by parliamentarians. Prior to the second reading of the legislation in February, a parliamentary working group will work additional proposals from deputies into the government draft. BB
INDEPENDENT EXPERTS TO STUDY KYRGYZ PARLIAMENTARY-BUGGING AFFAIR
Kyrgyzstan's prosecutor-general has agreed to hand over alleged listening devices found in the offices of opposition parliamentarians to independent experts, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 25 January, quoting parliamentarian Alisher Abdimomunov. Abdimomunov is a member of a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the bugging affair, which erupted earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 January 2004). According to Abdimomunov, the commission has informed the National Security Service and the Interior Ministry that it intends to examine secret documents given by the two agencies to the government and president's office. BB
KYRGYZSTAN SEEKS SPECIAL STATUS FOR ITS JOB SEEKERS IN RUSSIA
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, speaking to a press conference in Bishkek about his recent working trip to Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2004), said Kyrgyzstan has asked Russia to give Kyrgyz job seekers in the Russian Federation the same status as is given to job seekers from Belarus, "Obshchestvennyi reiting" reported on 26 January. Tanaev said he raised the issue with Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, along with the question of ratifying a bilateral agreement on labor migrants. The agreement would give Kyrgyz workers almost the same rights as Russian citizens during their stay in Russia. BB
SOME UZBEKS IN FERGHANA VALLEY WANT THEIR VILLAGES TRANSFERRED TO KYRGYZSTAN
Residents of some Uzbek villages near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border in the Ferghana Valley would like their villages to be transferred to Kyrgyzstan, even though they are ethnic Uzbeks, akipress.org reported on 26 January. One village in Namagan Oblast has held a public meeting to discuss the issue. The villagers' desire for the transfer reportedly is motivated by the fact that more than 10,000 Uzbeks migrate to Kyrgyzstan annually to work, primarily in the cotton fields. Uzbek villagers in border areas are having problems obtaining pasturage and water for their livestock on the Uzbek side, and have to buy basic foodstuffs across the border. BB
TAJIK PRESIDENT REORGANIZES PRESIDENTIAL GUARD, FIRES COMMANDER
Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov on 26 January signed a decree transforming the Presidential Guard into a National Guard and dismissing its commander, Lieutenant General Gaffor Mirzoev, Interfax reported. Mirzoev was a prominent military figure on the government side during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war who continues to enjoy considerable respect and influence in the Tajik military. Colonel Radzhab Rakhmonaliev, formerly head of Tajikistan's airborne battalion, has been appointed to head the new National Guard. BB
TAJIK BORDER GUARD SENTENCED TO 20 YEARS ON CHARGE OF SPYING FOR UZBEKISTAN
A lieutenant in Tajikistan's border guards, Farmon Fozilov, was sentenced by the military court of the Dushanbe garrison on 23 January to 20 years in prison on charges of having spied for Uzbekistan, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 26 January. Fozilov was also charged with deserting his post, treason, and several charges involving firearms. During the investigation, Fozilov admitted that he gave information to Uzbek border guards. Tajik legislation gives him the right to appeal his sentence to the Supreme Court. BB
STILL NO DEAL BETWEEN BELARUS, GAZPROM
Senior executives from Belarus's state-run gas-transport company, Beltranshaz, and Russian Gazprom failed to reach an agreement on 26 January on Russian gas deliveries to Belarus in 2004, Belapan reported. Participants in the talks included Belstranhaz Director Pyotr Pyotukh and Gazprom chief Aleksei Miller. "The 'romantic' period is over, and our Belarusian colleagues put forward more realistic proposals regarding delivery terms," the Gazprom press office quoted Miller as saying. "However, despite some progress in the talks, we have so far not reached mutually acceptable agreements." Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the same day that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka confirmed in a recent telephone conversation that Belarus is ready "to switch over to market relations with Russian gas suppliers," RIA-Novosti reported. Putin reportedly instructed his cabinet to consider providing Belarus with a state loan to pay for future gas deliveries. The Kremlin appears to be using negotiations over gas supplies in 2004 to force Minsk into higher gas prices and the sale of a stake in Beltranshaz (see End Note below). JM
IS UKRAINIAN ELECTION BILL BEING USED TO ATTRACT SUPPORT FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM?
Our Ukraine lawmaker Volodymyr Filenko said on 26 January that a new draft law prescribing a fully proportional, party-list system for the national parliament that was prepared by four legislators from the pro-presidential majority is primarily intended to muster the 300 Verkhovna Rada deputies needed to adopt the constitutional-reform bill that was preliminarily approved in December (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 January 2004), UNIAN reported. The draft bill reportedly sets the voting threshold for parliamentary representation at just 1 percent. "The pro-presidential majority wants to introduce a 1 percent voting threshold in order to make the Communist Party vote for the constitutional amendments and to fool 174 majority deputies [elected in single-mandate constituencies] who also do not support the constitutional reform out of fear that they will not be re-elected to parliament under a fully proportional election law," Filenko said. The Communist Party has made its support for the constitutional reform conditional on adopting a fully proportional system of parliamentary elections. The current election law reserves 225 seats for deputies elected under a proportional system and the other 225 seats for single-mandate constituencies; it also sets the parliamentary threshold at 4 percent. JM
ESTONIAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS FINLAND'S POSITION ON FREE MOVEMENT OF LABOR IS UNDERSTANDABLE
Juhan Parts told his Finnish counterpart Matti Vanhanen in Helsinki on 26 January that Finland's position that the 10 EU-candidate countries should only be allowed free movement of labor two years after admission is understandable, BNS reported. Parts also said it would not be advantageous for Finnish firms to transfer their operations to Estonia because labor costs in Estonia are also increasing. Vanhanen told a press conference following the meeting that Finland supports Estonia joining the eurozone as soon as possible. Parts was scheduled to meet on 27 January with President Tarja Halonen and parliament speaker and former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen before returning home. SG
LATVIAN PRIME MINISTER DISMISSES DEPUTY
Einars Repse on 26 January signed a decree dismissing Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers (Latvia's First Party, LPP), LETA reported the next day. Repse said earlier in the day that he planned to ask Slesers to resign because he has failed to fulfill his primary task of being an intermediary between the cabinet and parliament, and was not organizing the 2006 world ice-hockey championship in Riga successfully. Repse told reporters he has no complaints about other LPP ministers and will accept another deputy-prime-minister candidate from that party if it confirms it will remain in the ruling coalition. The LPP board will decide on 28 January whether it follow through with its earlier threat to quit the coalition if any of its ministers were dismissed without proper grounds. Slesers said he was dismissed because three LPP deputies expressed support for the opposition's initiative to set up a parliamentary investigative commission to probe Repse's financial affairs. SG
LITHUANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS WASHINGTON EXPECTING PRESIDENT'S RESIGNATION...
Antanas Valionis told journalists on 26 January that he received indications during informal discussions he held on his recent visit to Washington that President Rolandas Paksas should resign, BNS reported. During his five-day trip, Valionis met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and various senators and representatives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2004). Valionis told "Kauno diena" of 27 January that "in unofficial conversations it was stressed that the Constitutional Court's ruling that the president violated the constitution and broke his oath" by granting Lithuanian citizenship to Russian businessman Yurii Borisov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003) "is a very serious argument" for him to resign. Valionis also mentioned that he had heard dissatisfaction from U.S. lawmakers about the increased presence of people with allegedly anti-Semitic views within the president's circle. SG
...PROMPTING HARSH RESPONSE FROM PAKSAS, DENIAL OF OFFICIAL U.S. POSITION
Paksas later said that "one country should not interfere with another country's affairs" and that he will ask Valionis to explain why he publicized unofficial information and to specify its sources. After meeting with Valionis, U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Stephen Mull said the U.S. government does not take positions on Lithuania's domestic affairs and "will respect any outcome of the democratic process." SG
POLISH MINISTER OPTIMISTIC OVER EU CONSTITUTION
Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said after a discussion in Brussels on 26 January among EU and candidate-country foreign ministers on a proposed EU constitution that agreement is still possible in the first six months of 2004, before elections to the European Parliament, PAP reported. "Talks and meetings that I held, as well as today's debate and European politicians' statements in the media, indicate there are some reasons for optimism; but I wouldn't like to advocate light-hearted optimism," Cimoszewicz told Polish journalists. He reiterated that Poland still favors the Treaty of Nice's voting system in an enlarged EU and opposes its replacement with the system proposed by the European Convention. The same day, Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio declared that reaching agreement on an EU constitution is Spain's "priority goal." Spain, like Poland, supports the voting system agreed at Nice. JM
CZECH INTERIOR MINISTER VISITS U.S.
Interior Minister Stanislav Gross told journalists after talks with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in Washington that Czech passenger jets will have air marshals aboard only when necessary, and not on flights to all destinations, CTK reported on 26 January. Gross, who is on a weeklong visit to the United States, said he and Ridge discussed the threat of international terrorism, a possible lifting of visa requirements for Czech citizens, and overall security policies. Some Czech politicians have demanded that Czech nationals be exempted from the strict controls -- including fingerprinting and photographing -- imposed recently on visitors who are required to have visas. Gross said Washington should "very seriously consider reassessing" its position on the matter, since Czech citizens pose no security risk and have travel documents that are among the most modern in Europe. Ridge reportedly responded that the measure is necessary to fight illegal Czech labor in the United States. The daily "Hospodarske noviny" reported on 27 January that some Social Democratic Party (CSSD) members have demanded that Czech military participation in Afghanistan be contingent upon the lifting of visa requirements, but that Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla rejected any such link. MS
FORMER SLOVAK PREMIER LASHES OUT AT RIVAL OPPOSITION LEADER
Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) Chairman and former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar said on 26 January that Smer (Direction) Chairman Robert Fico continues to attack the HZDS despite the fact that he would need that party's support in order to become prime minister, TASR reported. In an interview with the daily "Narodna obroda," Meciar said he offered to negotiate with Fico on forming a coalition to replace the current center-right government, but Fico turned the offer down. Meciar claimed the HZDS is willing to compromise, but Smer is not showing any similar inclination. The HZDS has 26 seats in the 150-seat parliament, one more than Smer. The ruling coalition has lost its majority in the legislature and controls just 68 seats. Meciar meanwhile dismissed reports that he is negotiating with the current coalition parties. He also said he will announce at the end of this week whether he intends to run in the 3 April presidential elections. MS
HUNGARIAN PREMIER SEEKS POLITICAL CONSENSUS OVER EU
Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy has invited his postcommunist predecessors to meet in an attempt to forge a consensus over Hungarian national interests in the EU and find ways to curb extremism in the upcoming European election campaign, former Socialist Prime Minister Gyula Horn said on 26 January, according to "Nepszabadsag." Horn, who headed the country's Socialist-led government in 1994-98, was speaking at a meeting with opposition FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Pal Schmitt. Schmitt, who heads FIDESZ's slate of candidates to the European Parliament, said he is certain FIDESZ Chairman and former Prime Minister (1998-2002) Viktor Orban will welcome Medgyessy's invitation, the daily reported. Horn is directing the Socialist Party's campaign for the Europarliament. He told Schmitt that domestic policy differences should not be "exported" to Europe. MSZ
ALLEGED FLAG BURNERS PLEAD INNOCENT IN HUNGARIAN COURT
At their trial on 26 January, three men accused of setting fire to an Israeli flag at a seemingly unrelated demonstration against Tilos Radio rejected charges of disturbing the peace, Hungarian radio reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12, 13, 14, and 15 January 2004). One defendant claimed that he lost control of himself after an unknown individual gave him a piece of candy at the demonstration, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. He said same man, whom he described as a "provocateur," later encouraged him to burn the flag. Another defendant testified that flags are burned all over the world, and he denied that anyone shouted anti-Jewish slogans at the demonstration. He also told the judge that he disagrees with "Zionism's global aspirations." The third defendant, an ethnic Hungarian from Serbia and Montenegro, acknowledged that he brought the flag to the demonstration, saying he intended to send a symbolic message to those "who are behind" Tilos Radio. The trial was adjourned until 18 March, the daily reported. MSZ
FORMER CROATIAN SERB REBEL CHIEF PLEADS GUILTY AT WAR CRIMES TRIAL
Milan Babic, who was a leader of Croatia's Serbian minority during the 1991-95 conflict, pleaded guilty to a charge of persecuting non-Serbs at his trial before the Hague-based war crimes tribunal on 27 January, international media reported. Babic stressed that "he has a deep sense of shame and remorse." Babic admitted to "taking part in the worst kind of persecution of people, simply because they were Croats and not Serbs." His plea was the result of a deal he struck with prosecutors. It is not clear, however, whether the judges will honor the plea bargain by dropping four additional charges against Babic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2003). PM
A SOLOMONIC DECISION FOR HERZEGOVINA'S MAIN CITY?
About 99 percent of those participating in a 25 January referendum in the three primarily Croatian districts of Mostar voted to establish a unified municipality and single electoral district throughout the city, Bosnian media reported. The city is currently divided into six administrative and electoral districts, which is the arrangement preferred by the Muslim minority in east Mostar. High Representative Paddy Ashdown's point man for Mostar, Norbert Winterstein, has proposed a compromise formula establishing a single municipality but retaining the six voting districts for the upcoming October local elections. Ashdown opposes referendums confined to a single ethnic group, arguing that a recent poll shows that the majority of people in Mostar want a single municipality but with sufficient checks and balances in the administration to prevent any one ethnic group from monopolizing power, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Ashdown is scheduled to arrive in Mostar on 27 January for a two-day visit aimed at resolving the administrative dispute. PM
EU POLICE CHIEF IN BOSNIA DIES
Denmark's Sven Frederiksen, who headed the EU's police mission in Bosnia, died of a heart attack in Sarajevo on 26 January, Bosnian media reported. High Representative Ashdown praised Frederiksen for having spent many years promoting peace and security in the Balkans. Frederiksen previously did police work in Croatia, Kosova, and Albania. He also helped draft the 1995 Dayton peace agreement for Bosnia as an adviser to UN special envoy Carl Bildt of Sweden. PM
SERBIAN COURT REPORTEDLY ISSUES WAR CRIMES INDICTMENTS
Belgrade's private Radio B92 reported on 26 January that prosecutors have filed indictments with the Belgrade-district war crimes court charging eight unnamed individuals in connection with the killing of 192 Croatian prisoners of war after the fall of Vukovar in November 1991, Hina reported. The indictments reportedly state that the eight brought their victims from Vukovar's main hospital to a previously dug pit near Ovcara, where the victims were killed and buried (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003). Seven of the accused men are scheduled to be tried by the Belgrade court on 9 March. PM
SERBIAN BROADCASTER REFUSES TO AIR PROGRAM FOR LOCAL CROATS
Television Novi Sad (TVNS) refused on 26 January to broadcast the latest installment of a program for Vojvodina's Croatian minority because local Croatian leader Tomislav Zigmanov made comments in the broadcast linking TVNS to recent anti-Croatian incidents in the Serbian province, Hina reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2003). Dusica Dulic, who is editor of the canceled program, called TVNS's attitude "unacceptable." This is the third time that TVNS has refused to broadcast one of the Croat-oriented programs, which have been aired twice monthly since 2001. Meanwhile, unknown individuals damaged an unspecified number of tombstones in a Roman Catholic cemetery in Subotica over the 24-25 January weekend. The Croatian news agency reported that it was is the eighth anti-Croatian incident in Vojvodina since the 28 December Serbian parliamentary elections in which the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) won the most votes. PM
EU BLACKLISTS 'OBSTRUCTORS' OF MACEDONIAN PEACE ACCORD
Speaking after a meeting of the EU's foreign ministers in Brussels on 26 January, a spokeswoman for EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana confirmed that a blacklist is being prepared of those Macedonian citizens who Brussels believes are actively obstructing the implementation of the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Individuals on the list will be banned from entering EU countries. Similar blacklists were previously compiled by the EU and the U.S. government regarding alleged extremists from Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September 2002 and 2 June and 2 and 8 July 2003). In related news, the EU has named Sweden's Soren Jessen-Petersen as its new envoy to Macedonia, dpa reported on 26 January. He will replace Alexis Bruhins in February. UB
ROMANIAN PRESIDENT OUTLINES VISION OF POSTCOMMUNIST EVOLUTION
Ion Iliescu said on 26 January that the solution to the problems faced by contemporary Romania cannot be found in either capitalist or communist restoration, Mediafax reported. Iliescu, speaking upon his reception of an honorary Ph.D. from the Bucharest National School of Political and Administrative Studies, said three main schools of thought emerged in postcommunist Romania. The "historical parties" promoted a full restitution of assets, and became "marginalized" because they acted "in contrast with global evolution and the interests and expectations of Romanian society." The second, liberal school, Iliescu said, is characterized by "fundamentalism" indulging in a "fetishism" of the free market and promoting the nearly full obliteration of state intervention in the economy. Finally, the "essentially social democratic" third school of thought advocates a balanced combination of modern economic free-market and free-competition mechanisms, with granting the state a role aimed at correcting the results of polarization and social discrepancies spontaneously generated by the market economy. Iliescu said the principles of a "social market economy" made possible the post-World War II reconstruction of Western Europe and its current prosperity. MS
PRIME MINISTER SAYS ROMANIA HAS 'MORAL DUTY' TO FIGHT ANTI-SEMITISM
Adrian Nastase said on 26 January that his country has a "moral duty" to fight anti-Semitism, Mediafax reported. Addressing the Stockholm International Forum in the Swedish capital, Nastase said Romania had a totalitarian regime for nearly half of the 20th century and is therefore duty bound to combat anti-Semitism and xenophobia in general. He said future generations must be taught about the inherent danger of actions that lead to the violation of human rights. "Accepting [the legacy of] historic truth is the essential condition for ensuring civic responsibility and respect for human rights," he said. The Stockholm International Forum began in 2000 with a conference on the Holocaust and on 26 January held its fourth and final annual convention, which was dedicated to combating genocide worldwide. MS
IN RARE CONSENSUS, ROMANIAN PARTIES REJECT SZEKLER AUTONOMY DEMAND
The Covasna County branches of most ethnic Romanian parties on 26 January appealed to parliament to reject a proposed law on autonomy for the lands inhabited by the Szeklers, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004). The Social Democratic Party, the National Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance, the Greater Romania Party, the Romanian Humanist Party, and the Party of Romanian National Unity said in their joint appeal that the Szekler National Council's (CNS in Romanian, SZNT in Hungarian) law proposal is "a serious infringement on the basic law." The appeal went on to state that the authorities are obligated to take "corresponding measures" against the recently formed organization claiming to represent the Szekler group in the Hungarian minority. The signatories said they "appreciated" the rejection of the proposal by the national leadership of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), and quoted Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs as saying the UDMR is "the sole legitimate representative of the Hungarian minority in Romania" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 29 December 2003, and 9 January 2004). MS
MEDIATORS DISCUSS RESUMPTION OF NEGOTIATIONS IN TRANSDNIESTER CONFLICT
Meeting in Sofia on 26 January at the initiative of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman in Office and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, representatives of the three mediators of the Transdniester conflict -- the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine -- discussed ways to bring about the resumption of negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol, Infotag reported. The parleys were stalled in December last year, when Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin refused at the last minute to sign the Russian-proposed plan for Moldova's federalization. OSCE mission chief to Moldova William Hill said before departing for Sofia that the talks would focus on whether a new federalization plan should replace the versions separately proposed by the OSCE and Russia, or if the two proposals should be combined into one. MS
PPCD HARD CORE DEFIES BAN, SNOWSTORM
Several hundred supporters of the opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) defied the Chisinau mayoralty and heavy snowstorms on 25 January and assembled for an unauthorized protest rally against the government in central Chisinau, Flux and Infotag reported. According to Flux, the participants were surrounded by police with dogs. PPCD Chairman Iurie Rosca was cited by Flux as saying that similar protest rallies are to take place every Sunday around the bust of Romanian national poet Mihai Eminescu, the site where Moldova's independence movement took off 15 years earlier. Rosca told listeners Moldova will not become a "second Belarus," because "dictator Voronin's days are numbered and the forces of oppression will face the choice of letting us demonstrate peacefully and democratically or plunging the country into civil war." In a letter to Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean on 26 January, Rosca accused him of de facto collaboration with the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists, Flux reported. MS
BULGARIAN MEDIA-REGULATION BODY REJECTS RUSSIAN CRITICISM
The Council on Electronic Media (SEM) on 26 January rejected a request by the Russian Embassy to reprimand bTV for broadcasting an interview with Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former Russian Federal Security Service officer and associate of self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovskii, vsekiden.com reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2004). In the interview aired on "Blitz," a joint program of the private bTV and RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, Litvinenko accused the Russian security services of shielding organized-crime structures with President Vladimir Putin's knowledge. The SEM unanimously decided against interfering in the editorial politics of Bulgarian media and advised the Russian Embassy to take advantage of its right to publish a counter-statement. UB
BULGARIA MIGHT DEMAND COMPENSATION FOR DELAY IN AIRCRAFT REPAIR
Tsonko Kirov, a lawmaker of the governing National Movement Simeon II (NDSV), said on 26 January that Bulgaria might demand that Russian aircraft manufacturer MiG pay $500,000 in compensation for delays in the repair and modernization of Bulgaria's MiG-29 fighter jets, vsekiden.com reported. In August, Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov demanded that the Russian side pay $1 million in compensation for the delay, apparently without effect. Due to the delay, Bulgaria's MiG-29s were unable to participate in NATO's Cooperative Key 2003 exercise (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 August 2003). UB
RUSSIA'S LATEST 'GAS ATTACK' ON BELARUS
An announcement by gas traders Itera and Transnafta that they will halt deliveries of Russian gas to Belarus on 24 January was broadcast by Russian television networks on 22 January -- to the horror of Belarus and its ruling elite. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Belarus still has no agreement with the Russian natural-gas monopoly Gazprom for supplies in 2004. Gazprom halted deliveries to Belarus on 1 January, leaving Itera and Transnafta as the country's only remaining gas suppliers. Their decision came after Gazprom refused to approve a contract between Itera and the Belarusian government concerning February gas deliveries. Gazprom holds nearly unlimited leverage over Itera and Transnafta due to its control of access to gas-transport networks.
Until this year, Belarus received gas from Gazprom at the price that Russia's western regions were charged. An agreement signed between the Belarusian government and Gazprom in April 2002 specified that Gazprom would be allowed to participate in the tender to privatize Beltranshaz, which operates Belarus's gas-transport and distribution network, as a condition for the continuation of cut-rate gas supplies to Belarus. Just 10 billion cubic meters (Gazprom's share) of the 18 billion cubic meters of Russian gas received by Belarus in 2003 was delivered at the discount price of $28 per 1,000 cubic meters. The remaining amount was supplied by the two independent traders at a price of $44-50 per 1,000 cubic meters.
The Beltranshaz privatization collapsed in the summer of 2003 after Belarus valued the company at $5 billion and offered to sell just a minority stake (Gazprom was offering some $600 million for a controlling stake). This led Gazprom to announce in September that gas deliveries to Belarus would be carried out "on market principles." Gazprom also announced its withdrawal from talks over Beltranshaz, although that move was subsequently reversed under pressure from the Russian government, which had its own interest in keeping Minsk at the negotiation table over issues related to monetary union. Gazprom later declared that it would charge Belarus the same rate as European clients paid -- i.e., $80 per 1,000 cubic meters.
The threat of a skyrocketing gas bill forced the Belarusian government into hectic negotiations with the Russian government and Gazprom in the last quarter of 2003. However, no compromise was found despite frequent announcements from the Belarusian side that a deal was at hand. Facing the political and economic fallout from what might be described as a new "gas attack," official Minsk preferred to keep up appearances that everything was progressing well and in fact misinform the population by issuing optimistic and unwarranted reports in the media on purported details of the talks. The media thus announced in December that a compromise deal had been worked out to sell Gazprom a 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz in exchange for continuing to offer Russian gas at domestic prices. Meanwhile, Gazprom press releases effectively confirmed only that negotiations were continuing.
Belarusian television channels subsequently announced at the beginning of January that until the deal with Gazprom is finalized, Belarus will continue to receive gas at Russia's domestic rate. In fact, Gazprom has not resumed deliveries to Belarus since the beginning of the year. There is one interesting detail, however: Minsk considers last year's agreement with Gazprom to have been prolonged for this year, and on this basis siphons off gas from pipelines bound for Western customers without Gazprom's consent. Belarusian authorities have said they will pay Russia's domestic rate for that gas, as Gazprom has no contract for piping gas through Belarusian transport facilities in 2004.
Finally, Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski declared upon his return from Moscow on 15 January that deliveries of cheap gas would continue until a deal is worked out, adding that Russia retreated from the assumption that Beltranshaz would be sold according to its "balance [-sheet] value" of $600 million. In response, sources in the Russian government reportedly declared that the continuation of Gazprom deliveries at the 2003 price was "purely Sidorski's idea," while Gazprom said in a press release that the latest round of negotiations failed to produce a deal and confirmed that it has not supplied gas to Belarus since the end of 2003. To make matters worse, it turned out that Belarus had no agreements with Itera or Transnafta, as their gas deliveries were carried out according to protocols that expired on 16 January.
A temporary agreement signed on 23 January by Beltranshaz with Itera and Transnafta allows for gas deliveries to Belarus until 29 January, although the previous limits were reduced by one-third. But the dispute is far from over, and it leaves President Alyaksandr Lukashenka facing a tough choice: Either sell Beltranshaz at Gazprom's price or accept a significantly higher gas bill in 2004. (A third option is to continue siphoning off Russian gas, but this is a temporary solution that would merely heighten tensions.)
In the short term, the impending gas price hike threatens to ruin Lukashenka's grandiose economic plans for 2004 -- including 10 percent economic growth and wage hikes -- and make a laughing stock of his promise that monthly household gas bills would not grow by more than $4-5 per month. The gas talks might have been slowed by Belarus in 2003 in an intentional bid to raise the issue just before the March 2004 presidential election in Russia -- and hence put the Kremlin in an awkward position in front of the electorate. However, the results of the December elections to the Russian State Duma left Lukashenka with no strong political partner to back his cause (a role generally played by the Communist Party) and freed the Kremlin of any need to play the Russia-Belarus integration card in order to boost Russian President Vladimir Putin's re-election bid.
In the longer run, Gazprom, which is currently diversifying its supply routes to the West (the construction of a new pipeline on the bottom of the Baltic Sea has just been launched), might ultimately lose interest in purchasing Beltranshaz. That would leave Belarus with little chance of seeing major revenues from privatization.
On the other hand, Belarusian authorities cannot expect the country's gas bill to remain the same, regardless of how the current impasse is resolved. Russia's domestic gas prices will rise by approximately 20 percent in 2004, and independent gas traders have already hinted that they will pass along the increase. The gradual convergence of Russia's domestic prices with global gas prices is likely to continue, as this remains a major condition for Russian membership of the World Trade Organization.
A new gas war between Belarus and Russia once again raises speculation about whether politics alone lies behind the standoff. At any rate, it is utterly unthinkable that gas traders -- including even Gazprom -- would decide to halt gas supplies to Belarus without the Kremlin's knowledge and prior consent. President Vladimir Putin's comments appear to confirm this supposition: Putin reportedly told Lukashenka in a telephone conversation on 24 January that his government cannot force independent companies to supply gas without a relevant contract with Minsk, adding that the Kremlin absolves itself of responsibility for any possible negative consequences of the dispute.
Vital Silitski is a Minsk-based freelance researcher.
AFGHAN LEADER SIGNS NEW CONSTITUTION INTO LAW
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai signed the recently approved Afghan Constitution into law on 26 January, RFE/RL reported. A Constitutional Loya Jirga adopted the 162-article document on 4 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January 2004). The constitution creates a democratic Islamic state under a strong presidency, a bicameral parliament, and an independent judiciary. The text also declares men and women equal under the law (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 and 13 November 2003 and 8 January 2004). Karzai has said that the new constitution offers a chance to salvage Afghanistan after almost 25 years of nearly continuous conflict. Some observers have warned that the constitution can only be implemented if accompanied by a rapid improvement in the country's literacy rate and extension of the authority of the central government throughout Afghanistan. AT
CANADIAN SOLDIER AND AFGHAN CIVILIAN KILLED, OTHERS INJURED IN KABUL SUICIDE ATTACK
Afghan and Canadian officials say one Canadian soldier and an Afghan civilian were killed and at least two other Canadian soldiers injured in an apparent attack by a suicide bomber in Kabul on 27 January, RFE/RL reported. Afghan officials said eight civilians were also injured in the attack. Officials reportedly said the bomber approached a vehicle carrying the Canadian patrol and detonated explosives attached to his body. Canada, with around 2,000 troops, is the single largest contributor to the 5,500-strong, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that is based in Kabul. In October, two Canadian ISAF troops were killed when a mine exploded under their vehicle in Kabul (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 9 October 2003). AT
NATO'S COMMITMENT TO AFGHANISTAN QUESTIONED
NATO's new secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, came under criticism at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 23 January over the failure to expand ISAF beyond Kabul, AP reported the next day. De Hoop Scheffer countered that while it is impossible to "pacify the whole country," NATO's operations so far are "a start." Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans told de Hoop Scheffer that he must "come to grips with the fact that NATO's commitment in Afghanistan is a triumph of public relations over substance." Garth described the northern Afghan town of Konduz, where NATO also has a presence, as "the safest place in the country." Ken Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, added that "security has basically been relegated to the warlords" everywhere but Kabul and Konduz. (For more on NATO's operations in Afghanistan, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004). AT
ARSONISTS STRIKE GIRLS' SCHOOL IN EASTERN AFGHANISTAN
Unidentified arsonists set fire to a primary school for girls in the Nari district of Konar Province on 26 January, Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. No one has been arrested in connection to the case. AIP suggested the act was carried out by individuals loyal to the former Taliban regime, noting its policy of banning education for girls and women. AT
IRANIAN PRESIDENT VOWS TO HOLD ELECTIONS
Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami on 27 January ended speculation that the Iranian government will not hold parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 February, IRNA reported. "The government's plan is to hold healthy, free, and competitive elections and we will definitely hold such an election," Khatami said. "To shut down the elections means to shut down democracy, and God does not want such a thing for our people." On 26 January, government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh told ISNA that the government will organize the elections only if they will be "competitive, fair, and healthy." "In other words, it means that in all constituencies there should be real competition and not a stage-managed one, to allow all the people who are willing to compete legally and within the framework of the law and the constitution of the Islamic Republic to do so," Ramezanzadeh said. He called for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to "become more involved." BS
PRESIDENT REJECTS IRANIAN OFFICIALS' RESIGNATIONS...
President Khatami on 26 January rejected the mass resignation of his top officials, IRNA reported. A number of ministers and vice presidents submitted their resignations after the 21 January cabinet session as a protest against the massive rejection of prospective candidates for the 20 February parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 January 2004). In his reply to the officials, the text of which was supplied by ILNA, Khatami said: "It is our definite duty to continue to serve the Islamic Republic and the noble nation." He went on to insist on holding a free and sound election. BS
...BUT LEGISLATORS' FUTURE UNCLEAR
Mohsen Armin, a reformist legislator representing Tehran, said on 26 January that there is "no good reason" for political groups to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections since the Guardians Council has rejected legislation that would amend the election rules and permit reinstatement of most of the prospective candidates, ILNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2004). Armin said that a free election is not guaranteed and, "as a last resort, those who have staged a sit-in will resign their positions in the sixth parliament in protest against the blatant violation of their rights as citizens." Legislators participating in a sit-in to protest the disqualifications are consulting with the government on their next step, he said. BS
IRANIAN PRESIDENT INVESTIGATES SOUTHEASTERN RIOT
Seifullah Shahdad-Nejad, governor of the Kerman Province town of Shahr-i Babak, said on 26 June that President Khatami has dispatched a team to investigate the riot that took place there on the weekend of 24-25 January, IRNA reported. Four people were killed and dozens were injured when the unrest broke out over a labor dispute (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2004). Shahdad-Nejad said delegations from the president's office, the Interior Ministry, and the Kerman governor-general's office are looking into the unrest. He explained that the violence took place when riot police tried to prevent protestors from attacking the police headquarters and the governorate, adding that disgruntled copper-smelter workers were protesting layoffs when 300 motorcycle-riding individuals attacked the buildings. Shahdad-Nejad said baton-wielding police injured some people and objects hurled by the workers injured others. Shahdad-Nejad did not rule out the role of "a certain group," presumably the hard-line Ansar-i Hizbullah vigilantes. BS
IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER PRAISES HIZBALLAH-ISRAEL PRISONER SWAP
Kamal Kharrazi on 26 January hailed the exchange of prisoners between Lebanese Hizballah and Israel as, in the words of state television, "a great victory for the resistance of Lebanese people and government." Under the first part of this deal, Hizballah will exchange a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the remains of three Israeli soldiers for 400 Palestinians and tens of other Arabs who have been in Israeli detention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2004). The second part of the deal calls for the creation of committees that will look into the status of four Lebanon-based Iranian diplomats who disappeared in 1982 and an Israeli Air Force officer whose aircraft was shot down in 1986 and who is believed to be in Iranian custody. Kharrazi said he hopes this would determine the fate of the diplomats and end their families' suffering. BS
UN SECRETARY-GENERAL AGREES TO SEND TEAM TO IRAQ...
Kofi Annan announced on 27 January that he will send a UN team to Iraq to assess the feasibility of holding early national direct elections there, AP reported. "The mission will ascertain the views of a broad spectrum of Iraqi society in the search for alternatives that might be developed to move forward to the formation of a provisional government," Annan said in a statement issued in Paris, where he was wrapping up a seven-city European tour. Both the U.S.-led occupation authority and the Iraqi Governing Council requested Annan's help in assessing the possibility for elections after Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and others rejected the 15 November agreement between the United States and the Governing Council calling for a provisional government to be elected through caucuses (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 16 and 23 January 2004). KR
...AS GOVERNING COUNCIL MEMBER SAYS UN WILL BE FINAL ARBITER
Iraqi Governing Council member Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 26 January that the Iraqi Governing Council does not have an official view on the UN delegation to Iraq because the council should remain neutral to the issue and allow the UN team to carry out its assessment. Asked whether that means the Governing Council does not care about elections, al-Rubay'i responded: "All of the Governing Council members are with the election, but some of them believe that there is no practical possibility for this.... But the final arbiter is those with expertise, who would resolve the issue." KR
MILITANTS ATTACK POLISH HEADQUARTERS IN IRAQ
Militants attacked the Polish military headquarters in the holy city of Karbala on 26 January, international media reported. Karbala police spokesman Rahman Mashawi said that unidentified gunmen opened fire on a hotel housing Polish forces. A gun battle reportedly ensued between the militants and Iraqi policemen responding to the gunfire. One Iraqi policeman was killed, and no Polish casualties were reported, according to AP. Police arrested two of the gunmen. Poland has 2,400 troops stationed in Karbala, located 120 kilometers south of Baghdad. Also on 26 January, militants fired a rocket into the "green zone" housing the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters in Baghdad, international media reported. The rocket landed in an empty parking lot and no casualties were reported. KR
AL-DURI SAID TO BE ENCOURAGING SUPPORTERS TO INFILTRATE IRAQI POSTS
Former Iraqi Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, who is No. 6 on the United States' list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the deposed Hussein regime, is reportedly encouraging pro-Hussein militants to infiltrate government agencies and the Iraqi military, Baghdad's "Al-Yawm al-Akhar" reported on 26 January. Citing an unidentified Interior Ministry source, the weekly reported that a detained militant was found carrying a handwritten message from al-Duri urging supporters to join the Iraqi police and army and to infiltrate important state institutions for the purpose of exploiting them. The message also reportedly encourages militants to carry out acts of sabotage with the goal of undermining Iraq's security and stability. Meanwhile, AP quoted Interior Minister Nuri Badran as telling reporters in Baghdad on 26 January that "there is a presence of Al-Qaeda in this country.... A lot of the suicide attacks have the fingerprints of the crimes committed by Al-Qaeda." U.S. officials have given alternative views in recent months regarding the presence of the terrorist network in Iraq. However, U.S. officials said on 24 January that Kurdish forces arrested senior Al-Qaeda figure Hassan Ghul in northern Iraq last week. KR
NATO CHIEF FAVORS ROLE IN IRAQ
New NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on 26 January that he supports a role for the Atlantic alliance in Iraq, AFP reported. "If the question comes, it goes without saying that I'm very much in favor of a NATO role," de Hoop Scheffer told reporters in Brussels. NATO currently plays a small role in Iraq, providing logistical support to the Polish contingent there. De Hoop Scheffer said it is too early to determine what kind of role the alliance might play in Iraq. "Let's see what the political developments will be between now and July, ...what a legitimate government of Iraq will ask [for]," he said. KR