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Newsline - February 24, 2004

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on 24 February dismissing the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Russian media reported. Putin announced his decision in a live broadcast on RTR television, saying that Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko has been named acting prime minister. "This decision is not related to an assessment of the results of the government's activities, which in general I consider to be satisfactory," Putin said, according to RIA-Novosti. "It is the result of a desire once again to affirm my position as to what will be the course of the country after [the] 14 March [presidential election]." In the run-up to the 7 December State Duma elections, analysts speculated widely that Putin would dismiss Kasyanov, who has served as prime minister since May 2000 and who has been considered an ally of Russian big business. Kasyanov's future was regarded as particularly uncertain following the 30 October resignation of former presidential chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin. RC

Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizhov, who is in charge of relations with the European Union, offered on 22 February to extend temporarily the conditions of Russia's existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EU to the 10 states that are expected to become EU members on 1 May, the "Financial Times" reported on 23 February. Chizhov told the newspaper that Russia does not want to block EU enlargement, but it does want to change the PCA to compensate for the $375 million that Moscow estimates enlargement will cost Russia, particularly due to worsened conditions for Russian exports of aluminum, chemicals, grain, and nuclear fuel to the acceding states. Among the prospective EU states are Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Chizhov's comments followed a EU foreign ministers' statement warning that Russia's failure to sign a new PCA covering the EU accession states by 1 May "without precondition or distinction" would have a "serious impact" on EU-Russian relations. An unnamed diplomat said the foreign ministers' statement was "a threat of sanctions," AFP reported on 23 February. JB

Deputy State Duma Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin (Motherland) said on 23 February that Russia should not accept the EU's demands that it sign a new PCA to cover the 10 countries that are expected to join the EU on 1 May, Interfax reported. "Russia does not plan to act on the orders of Brussels. It must above all be concerned about its national interests," Rogozin said. He added that Russia must insist that it will sign individual agreements with each of the new EU members. Federation Council International Relations Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov called the EU's demands for a new PCA "the language of sanctions," which, he said, "is not the style now needed in relations between Russia and the European Union," Interfax reported on 23 February. Margelov said Russia plans to develop "a strategic partnership" with the EU, but wants the EU to increase quotas for Russian imports, to lower import duties on goods shipped from Kaliningrad Oblast through Lithuania, and to eliminate restrictions on Russian aircraft flying in European airspace. JB

Federation Council International Relations Committee Chairman Margelov said that NATO expansion is proceeding according to "geopolitical maps" dating back to the turn of the 20th century, RIA-Novosti reported on 23 February. Russia, he said, "is to be pushed to the heart of Eurasia, on the northeast of the continent, where its so-called 'middle significance' is to be weakened." Margelov said Russia is also "being outflanked from the southeast in Central Asia with the [NATO's] Partnership for Peace program, which is being transformed into a military program." "As for the Baltic states joining NATO," Margelov said, "it's not only a go at Russia's northwest, but a strengthening of the anti-Russian make-up of the alliance and [the anti-Russian] mood of the elites of these states." Margelov also said NATO "is actively making advances to Georgia and Azerbaijan on the southern borders of Russia and at the same time setting up 'special relations' with Ukraine in the southwest." But none of this means Russia should take a "hostile stance" toward or "demonize" NATO, he cautioned. JB

Yana Dubeikovskaya, campaign manager for presidential candidate Sergei Glazev, told Ekho Moskvy on 23 February that she is going to recommend that Glazev withdraw from the 14 March presidential election and that her recommendation reflects the mood of the entire campaign headquarters. Dubeikovskaya charged that "almost all of Glazev's trusted people in various regions of Russia are being confronted with serious administrative pressure." Dubeikovskaya also complained about press coverage of the campaign. "The last straw [for us] was when the mass media failed to cover Glazev's visit to Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk," she said. Dubeikovskaya added that Glazev will comment on the situation on 24 February. Meanwhile, sociologist Yurii Levada told the station that Glazev's withdrawal would likely not affect voter turnout, since Glazev has only 3 percent-4 percent support. Dubeikovskaya told Interfax that "enormous material and personnel resources are being thrown into the struggle against candidates whom the authorities consider undesirable." JAC

Aleksandr Ryklin, writing in "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal," No. 108, examined presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin's latest story of what happened to him during the five days earlier this month that he was missing from Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). Ryklin suggested that Rybkin's claim that he was lured to Kyiv under the pretext of a possible meeting with Chechen leader Aslan Maskhakov is "extremely weak." "Why would Maskhadov risk his life to go to Kyiv to meet with a Russian politician of the fifth rank on which nothing has depended for a long time?" he asked. Ryklin admitted that "we will probably never know what happened to Rybkin during those five days." But he suggested that the Central Election Commission's reversal from one day to the next of how many invalid signatures Rybkin had submitted and the subsequent fact of Rybkin's registration as a candidate on 7 February could mean only one thing: "A political decision was made at the last moment, the basis of which was that Ivan Rybkin no longer represented any kind of threat and they had reached an agreement with him about everything." JAC

In an interview with "Yezhnedelnyi zhurnal," No. 108, former ORT Deputy General Director Marat Gelman reported that he composed his resignation from ORT the day after the 7 December State Duma elections. "On 8 December, when it was still not known to what extent the presidential campaign would be a form of parody, there was sense that everything was over," Gelman said. "The opposition disappeared, and there are no people [left] who will struggle for power." Gelman, who is a noted political-campaign adviser and who advised the Motherland-Patriotic Union Duma campaign, also said that a new kind of "technology of power" has appeared that is "a lot more effective than the political technology that people like me can suggest." This new technique relies on using instruments, such as tax inspections, prosecutorial inquiries, and court cases against one's political rivals, Gelman said. JAC

Interior Ministry troops in Moscow on 23 February broke up a demonstration marking the 60th anniversary of the mass deportation of the Chechen people to Kazakhstan and protesting the ongoing armed conflict in Chechnya, Russian media reported. Thirteen people -- including For Human Rights Chairman Lev Ponomarev and Russian Radicals head Nikolai Khramov -- were detained for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration. Ponomarev and Khramov were released after being charged with organizing an unsanctioned picket and being ordered to appear in court on 24 February. They could face fines if convicted. The demonstration involved some 50 people from various groups, including the For Human Rights movement, the Transnational Radical Party -- to which the "Russian Radicals" movement belongs -- and the Antimilitary Committee, Interfax reported, citing Ponomarev. Demonstrators carried signs that read, among other things, "Chechnya, forgive us" and "Temporary UN administration for Chechnya," reported on 23 February. JB

The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) condemned the break-up of the Moscow demonstration on 23 February. According to the group's website (, eyewitnesses -- including IHF Executive Director Aaron Rhodes -- reported that demonstrators had just commenced a moment of silence to commemorate the victims of the Chechnya conflict when police, with "no legal basis," moved in and "roughly" detained approximately 13 demonstrators. "On the eve of [the 14 March] presidential election, when the authorities should ensure a plurality of discourse, we are witnessing the reverse," Rhodes said. The IHF website also reported that while the Moscow city authorities had denied the demonstrators permission to gather because 23 February was also Defenders of the Fatherland Day, an official holiday, "according to witnesses present at the meeting, there were no other activities or gatherings taking place in the area." Transnational Radical Party member Anna Zaitseva, who was among those detained, said police told the detainees they were suspected of involvement in the 6 February Moscow subway explosion, Ekho Moskvy reported on 23 February. JB

Murmansk Oblast Governor Yurii Yevdokimov will competing against four little-known candidates in the oblast's 14 March gubernatorial election, leading analysts to consider the ballot "alternative-less," "Rodnaya gazeta," No. 42, reported. Yevdokimov is seeking a third term, and since the death of Murmansk Mayor Oleg Naidenov in May 2003 he has faced no serious political challengers, the weekly argued. Yevdokimov will face Vladimir Pelyak, editor of the local Communist Party newspaper, "Kolskii mayak"; Aleksandr Kudasov, an oil-tanker worker nominated by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR); Rimma Kuruch, leader of the regional branch of the Party of Pensioners; and Dmitrii Vinogradov, head of the Laminaria plyus commercial enterprise. Vinogradov paid a 3 million rubles ($105,000) election deposit rather than collect signatures to support his candidacy. However, he reportedly does not intend to mount any kind of campaign and is considered a "technical candidate" participating for the benefit of the governor. JAC

Legislators in Ivanovo Oblast have elected Yurii Smirnov as their representative to the Federation Council, replacing Valentin Bakulin, Regnum reported on 22 February. Bakulin's term was not set to expire until December 2005. Smirnov is chairman of the board of directors of the company Rosshin. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 23 February, Ivanovo Oblast Governor Vladimir Tikhonov called the replacement of Bakulin with Smirnov an intrigue engineered by the local branch of Unified Russia. Tikhonov is a member of the Communist Party, and Bakulin was a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee before becoming a senator. JAC

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov told Interfax on 23 February that the deportation 60 years earlier on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin of the Chechen people to Kazakhstan and Central Asia was part of a plan to exterminate the entire Chechen people, and was comparable to the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide. He complained that Soviet-era and post-Soviet legislation on the rehabilitation of the Chechens and other ethnic groups that were summarily deported is not being applied in Chechnya. Also on 23 February, Maskhadov, who was elected Chechen president in 1997 in a ballot recognized by Russia and the international community as free and fair, said that the brutality with which the 1944 deportation was carried out has been exceeded only by the cruelty of the Russian military in Chechnya over the past decade, according to Both Kadyrov and Maskhadov were born in Kazakhstan of parents who survived the deportation. LF

Chechen police and security services launched a large-scale operation in Grozny on 23 February to intercept, search, and confiscate vehicles without license plates, Interfax reported. Presidential security service head Ramzan Kadyrov said that 70 such vehicles had been seized by 3:30 p.m. local time that day, adding that most crimes in Chechnya are perpetrated by people using such transport. On 20 February, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Movsur Khamidov said military vehicles without license plates are frequently used in abductions, Interfax reported. He gave the number of persons abducted in Chechnya in 2003 as 581. He added that there were 33 abductions in January and 14 in the first 20 days of this month. LF

Addressing a news conference in Yerevan on 20 February, National Democratic Union leader and former Prime Minister and three-time presidential candidate Vazgen Manukian called on opposition and pro-government parties to align to force the resignation of President Robert Kocharian, Noyan Tapan reported. Manukian advocated cooperation between the opposition and two of the three parties represented in the present coalition government, the Republican Party of Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun. He argued that following Kocharian's resignation, temporary presidential rule should be declared for two years, during which a new constitution would be adopted and parliamentary elections held. Only after that, Manukian said, should a new president be elected. Manukian also argued that if the pro-Kocharian parliamentary majority continues to refuse to debate an opposition-drafted bill on a referendum on confidence in the president, opposition parliamentarians should resign their mandates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3, 4, 5, 12, and 17 February 2004). LF

In a statement adopted on 20 February, the parliament of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic reaffirmed the "resolve of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to build an independent and democratic state," a correspondent in Stepanakert for RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The statement urged Armenians around the world to close ranks for the sake of "a just and final solution" of the Karabakh conflict. On 20 February 1988, the oblast soviet of the then-Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast first formally appealed to the USSR Supreme Soviet to transfer the oblast from Azerbaijani to Armenian jurisdiction. LF

Journalists working for the independent television company Iberia, the monthly journal "Omega," the newspaper "Akhali epokha," and the Media News news agency staged a protest on 21 February against the closure two days earlier of the publishing house owned by their parent company, the Omega Group, on orders from the Prosecutor-General's Office, Caucasus Press reported. Police dispersed the protesters, firing shots into the air. On 23 February, "Omega" Editor in Chief Rostom Chkheidze announced he would begin a hunger strike to demand access to the journal's premises and the right to resume publication. The Prosecutor-General's Office suspects the Omega Group, which is owned by parliamentarian Zaza Okuashvili and is Georgia's largest cigarette importer, of failing to pay excise taxes totaling some 12 million laris ($5.8 million) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). Caucasus Press on 21 February quoted Okuashvili as alleging he is being pressured for his refusal to pay an undisclosed sum into a foreign bank account controlled by Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. LF

Gia Djokhtaberidze, who was arrested at Tbilisi's airport on 20 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004), was remanded for three months in pretrial custody on 22 February, Georgian media reported. His offer to pay $1 million bail was rejected. Djokhtaberidze, the husband of former President Eduard Shevardnadze's daughter, Manana, owns the majority stake in Georgia's largest cellular-phone company. He has been charged with nonpayment of taxes amounting to 700,000 laris ($337,044). A spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office said on 21 February that a search of Djokhtaberidze's home yielded no evidence relevant to the charges against him, Caucasus Press reported. LF

The Batumi office of the Christian Democratic Party (KhDP) was the target of an arson attack during the night of 21-22 February, Georgian media reported. Local KhDP branch head Avtandil Darchia was hospitalized on 22 February after having been abducted by unknown persons and severely beaten. The premises in Batumi of the opposition group Our Adjaria were also attacked and ransacked late on 21 and again late on 22 February. Caucasus Press on 23 February quoted Adjar Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze as saying the violence was fuelled by unspecified political forces outside Adjaria with the aim of destabilizing the political situation there. Speaking in Tbilisi the same day, Mikheil Machavariani, a leading member of Zhvania's United Democrats, called for a swift investigation into the attacks, Caucasus Press reported. But Machavariani rejected as premature a demand by Tbilisi students that Zhvania should travel to Batumi immediately for talks. LF

As of the 21 February deadline, five blocs and 37 political parties had registered to participate in the 28 March elections for 150 parliament mandates to be distributed under the proportional-representation system, Caucasus Press reported on 23 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). Candidates from Zhvania's United Democrats will run on the party list of President Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement. Saakashvili told journalists on 20 February following talks with visiting Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer that the latter's proposal that the barrier for parliamentary representation under the proportional-representation system be reduced from 7 percent to 4 percent or 5 percent would serve to fuel corruption, because "small political parties seek to enter parliament in order to promote their business interests and to carry out illegal transactions," Caucasus Press reported. LF

Lieutenant General Valeri Chkheidze, the outgoing director of the State Border Protection Service, was named on 20 February to succeed Lieutenant General Avtandil Ioseliani as head of Georgia's Intelligence Service, Georgian media reported. Chkheidze's successor as head of the border-protection service will be former Deputy Prosecutor-General Badri Bitsadze, Prime Minister Zhvania told journalists on 24 February. Bitsadze is married to parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze. LF

Uzakbai Karabalin, president of Kazakhstan's state oil-and-gas firm KazMunaiGaz, told a news conference in Astana on 23 February that the firm has submitted to the Kazakh government a feasibility study for the Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline, which will link western Kazakh oil fields with China, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. If the study is speedily approved, construction of the 3,000-kilometer, $3 billion pipeline could begin this summer. Karabalin said KazMunaiGaz is actively seeking to buy oil refineries abroad, because it does not intend to limit itself to selling crude oil. He mentioned specifically the Czech firm Unipetrol as a promising investment. Karabalin also confirmed that Kazakhstan intends to sign onto the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which will be able to transport more than 10 million tons of Kazakh oil annually. BB

Kazakh weekly "Sport & KS" Editor in Chief Nesip Zhunusbai-uly has been fired over an article critical of the state of sport in the country that appeared in the official Kazakh-language daily "Yegemen Qazaqstan" on 17 January, reported on 23 February. The article, the content of which was not further described in the report, was later republished in Zhunusbai-uly's own publication. Zhunusbai-uly has announced that he intends to prove he was unlawfully dismissed and that he wants his job back. BB

Deputy Interior Minister Bolotbek Nogoibaev told a news conference in Bishkek on 23 February that his ministry has been unable to confirm claims by several detained members of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir that they were tortured by law enforcement officers in Djalal-Abad, and reported. According to the Interior Ministry, six Hizb ut-Tahrir members were detained for allegedly distributing party leaflets, although the ministry did not say when this occurred. They were questioned for several hours and then sent home. The detainees later told human rights activists they had been beaten while in custody. Nogoibaev claimed that bruises such as the detainees showed to support their allegations could be easily faked. BB

The Kyrgyz NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society has issued a press release announcing that its correspondence with state authorities and agencies will be conducted in the state language -- Kyrgyz -- in the future, reported on 23 February. The regular working language of the NGO will remain Russian. The recently adopted law on Kyrgyzstan's state language does not apply directly to NGOs, in the view of coalition leader Edil Baisalov, but using the state language is a gesture of respect. Other NGOs and noncommercial organizations have expressed interest in the coalition's initiative. BB

A group of parliamentarians from the Tajik Communist Party and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan have proposed changes in the country's election legislation, Deutsche Welle reported on 22 February. Among the proposed changes are strengthening penalties for violations of election laws and making it more difficult for the authorities to interfere in the election process. It was also proposed that 50 percent of the members of parliament be elected from party lists; at present one-third come from party lists. BB

Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodiq Safaev told a news conference in Tashkent on 21 February that the U.S. military base in the country will remain at least until the end of the antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan, but it could remain on a permanent basis if needed, reported. Safaev also said that the criminal convictions of journalist Ruslan Sharipov and of Fatima Mukadirova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004), who publicized the case of her son's death in prison after reportedly having been warned off by the security services, are being reexamined because of the considerable international outcry they have generated. BB

British Home Secretary David Blunkett said in Parliament on 23 February that citizens of the acceding EU states will be ineligible for U.K. welfare benefits for at least two years, AFP and AP reported. Although citizens of states joining the union on 1 May will no longer be required to have work permits to work in Great Britain, they will have to sign up for a "workers' registration scheme" that is not required for citizens of current EU states working in the country. Blunkett said the British government will retract new EU citizens' right to work in Great Britain if so many come to the country that it destabilizes its labor market. The United Kingdom and Ireland are the only two EU members that have imposed no restriction on the free movement of labor for citizens of acceding states. Other EU states have imposed two- to seven-year "transition periods" before citizens of acceding states can freely enter their labor markets. MS

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 23 February warned against "politicizing" the recent row with Russia over gas, Belapan reported. "If anyone in the Russian Federation wants to, let them politicize," Lukashenka was quoted as saying by the presidential press office at a government conference. Lukashenka said the dispute is solely economic and called for further negotiations. "If the Russian Federation wants to sell us its goods at a higher price, we also should offer our a higher price," he said. "And then there will be no political exaggeration of the conflict." Earlier the same day, Lukashenka criticized Belarus's opposition for "misrepresenting" the situation as a problem in Belarusian-Russian relations. On 19 February, Lukashenka said Moscow resorted to "terrorism" by cutting off gas supplies to Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). LA

The Belarusian education authorities have abandoned plans to set up a replacement school to succeed the Yakub Kolas National Humanities Lyceum, which was shut down in 2003, Belapan reported on 23 February. In an interview with the news agency, Uladzimir Shcherba, the head of the Education Ministry's Main General Education Office, said the plan for the Minsk State Humanities Lyceum will not go ahead because the school did not receive a single application for admission. The Yakub Kolas lyceum was the only preparatory school in the capital that provided instruction in all subjects in Belarusian. It was closed on 25 July, but students and teachers continue to meet for classes on other premises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2003). Uladzimir Kolas, the rector of the closed Yakub Kolas lyceum, said the building is not currently being used and that "the teaching staff of the lyceum, students, and their parents express protest and declare that we will press for the return of the its rightful owners when the rule of law is restored in the country." LA

President Lukashenka signed an edict on 23 February stipulating that the heads of companies and enterprises will be responsible for the ideological schooling of their workforces, Belapan reported. The edict specifies how many people can be employed by local "ideology departments" and the procedure for appointing ideology officers within organizations. A statement released by the president's press office read: "An ideologist must enjoy the credibility of the staff, be able to explain issues of interest to his or her colleagues, and help [the workers] address their own problems." LA

Ukraine's state oil-producing company, Ukrnafta, announced on 24 February that it is planning to increase oil production to almost 3 million tons in 2004, or about 62,800 barrels per day, according to Interfax Ukraine, A company spokesperson said this would constitute an increase of 3.6 percent over 2003 production by the company, which produces 93 percent of Ukraine's crude oil. Ukraine consumed 290,000 barrels of oil per day in 2001, roughly equal to the amount consumed that year by Hong Kong, and had proven reserves of 197.5 million barrels, according to the CIA "World Factbook" ( Ukrnafta also announced that it will increase natural-gas production by 2.3 percent to 3.3 billion cubic meters. Ukraine consumed 74.1 billion cubic meters of gas in 2001, with the difference imported from Turkmenistan by Naftohaz Ukrayina, the state natural-gas monopoly. Meanwhile, the "Russian Oil and Gas Report" of 20 February reported that Ukraine is about to establish a national oil company with full-cycle capability -- from oil production to sale of petroleum products on the Ukrainian domestic market. The formation of such a company was first announced in 2002 by the government of former Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh. The new, as yet unnamed entity, will be based on Ukrnafta and state-owned stakes in the Kremenchugsky, Nadviryansky, and Drohobychsky refineries. RK

Volodymyr Radchenko, former head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and current head of the National Security and Defense Council, has denounced SBU General Valeriy Kravchenko's recent revelation that he received secret instructions from his superiors to gather information on members of the Ukrainian opposition as "unbefitting an officer of the SBU," Interfax Ukraine reported on 24 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). Radchenko told the news agency that the political implications of Kravchenko's revelations were created artificially by his desire to remain in Germany for another year to save money to finish renovating his apartment in Kyiv. Radchenko said he signed the orders that sent Kravchenko to Berlin and took the general's recent actions "very painfully." RK

Assistant Social Affairs Minister Kulvar Mand has announced that the ministry has established a working group aimed at discouraging Estonia's physicians from moving abroad to earn much higher wages, BNS reported on 23 February. The group is discussing, among other things, how much doctors' salaries would have to be raised to stop the outflow abroad -- particularly to Finland, where Estonian doctors have an easier time overcoming the language barrier. Hospitals from the Finnish cities of Kotka and Lappeeranta recently held recruitment meetings in Tallinn and Tartu that were attended by more than 100 doctors. Last year, 71 doctors from Estonia were issued work permits in Finland. Mand noted that the movement of doctors abroad is only a problem if they remain there permanently, as the experience doctors gain abroad would be beneficial upon their return to Estonia. SG

Krisjanis Karins, head of the New Era parliament faction, told reporters after talks with prime minister-designate Indulis Emsis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004), that his party would not support a cabinet formed by the chairman of the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), BNS reported. Karins said New Era is continuing coalition talks with other parties in the hope that President Vaira Vike-Freiberga will change her position and ask New Era Chairman and recently resigned Prime Minister Einars Repse to head a new government. Karins said the party's main reason for not backing Emsis is his unwillingness to give clear answers on such questions as whether his cabinet will observe fiscal discipline and not exceed a 2 percent budget deficit, as well as whether he plans to include Latvia's First Party (LPP) in his coalition. New Era has also opposed Emsis's sharp criticism of Latvia's involvement in peacekeeping operations in Iraq, and expressed fears that this could become the new cabinet's official position. The ZZS and its likely partners, the LPP and the People's Party, would have only 46 votes in the 100-seat parliament. SG

Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis told BNS that NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told him in Brussels on 23 February that Lithuania and the other six candidate countries will become full-fledged members of NATO during a ceremony in Brussels on 2 April. Following the hoisting of the flags of the new members at NATO headquarters that day, there will be an informal meeting of the foreign ministers of the current and new NATO members. The two officials also discussed Scheffer's visit to Lithuania scheduled for 12 March. Valionis was in Brussels for the meeting of the EU's General Affairs and External Relations Council, which primarily discussed the EU's financial prospects and relations with Russia. He stressed that the EU must speak with Russia "in unison" and have a single position, especially on the issue that the EU-Russian Partnership and Cooperation Agreement has to be applied to all new EU members from the first day of their membership. SG

Speaking on Polish radio on 23 February, Prime Minister Leszek Miller reiterated that he has no intention of resigning his post as head of the government, the independent news agency PAP reported. There has been much speculation surrounding Miller's position ever since he stepped down as the chairman of the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) on 17 February. Public support for the SLD, which shares power with the Labor Union, has waned and some polls suggest it is as low as 12 percent. Miller declined to answer which candidate he believes will be his successor as party chairman, and said he would indicate his choice just before the party congress in March. Miller said that "it's important that it will be somebody who could devote, like to a young wife, all his time to the party needs, somebody who gives more dynamism to the party." Meanwhile, during a trip to central Poland's Lodz Province, Miller said that if Deputy Prime Minister Jerzy Hausner's austerity plan fails to gain a majority in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, then "early parliamentary elections should be held," PAP reported. LA

Leaders of the three-party center-left ruling coalition on 23 February nominated Pavel Telicka to replace Milos Kuzvart as the country's European commissioner, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004). The government was expected to formally appoint Telicka, who served as the Czech Republic's chief negotiator in its accession talks with the EU, at its 24 February meeting. Telicka told CTK on 23 that he is prepared to accept the appointment. European Commission President Romano Prodi and European Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen on 23 February advised the Czech Republic to act quickly in appointing "a strong personality," which would help "reduce the damage" Kuzvart's 20 February resignation did to the country's reputation, CTK reported. Telicka's candidacy for the post was backed from the start by junior coalition member Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU), but was initially opposed by the junior coalition partner Christian Democratic Party-People's Union (KDU-CSL) owing to his previous membership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Telicka was born in 1965 in Washington, D.C., into a family of Czechoslovak diplomats. MS

The Central Bohemia branch of the senior coalition member Social Democratic Party (CSSD) on 23 February urged Kuzvart, a member of that branch, to resign all of his political posts, including his positions as lawmaker and deputy chairman of the lower house's Public Administration, Regional Development, and Environment Committee. The branch said Kuzvart ceased to represent its interests in the legislature long ago, and that his resignation as European commissioner damaged the party's and the country's reputation. Kuzvart has said has no intention of resigning any of his positions. His vote in parliament is crucial for the ruling coalition, which holds a slim majority of 101 members. MS

Looting and rioting that broke out in eastern Slovakia last week continued as substantial welfare cuts loom, CTK and TASR reported on 23 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2003). A grocery store clerk was injured in Rimavska Sobota on 23 February when she attempted to prevent a group of 20 Roma from looting the store, the news agencies reported. Police arrived at the scene and detained several suspects. Meanwhile, in the evening of 23 February several hundred Roma clashed with police in Trebisov, some 50 kilometers from the eastern Slovak town of Kosice, after police tried to disperse an illegal demonstration, CTK reported. Two policemen suffered minor injuries when the demonstrators threw rocks and empty bottles at police. However, a local Rom denied that the group was demonstrating, saying the Roma were preparing to loot a shop. Police took a number of Roma into custody. Slovak Romany Council Chairman Frantisek Gulas laid blame for the clashes in Trebisov on Romany Parliament head Ladislav Fizik, who recently called for demonstrations to protest welfare cuts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004). MS

President Rudolf Schuster met on 23 February with Labor Minister Ludovit Kanik and Interior Minister Vladimir Palko to discuss the recent civil unrest. Presidential spokesman Jan Fule said after the meeting that Schuster believes the government was late in announcing compensation it intends to grant those whose benefits will be cut. Schuster also complained that the Interior Ministry has no adequate and timely information about the unrest, TASR reported. Both ministers denied the president's accusations, saying the unrest is mainly due to Romany moneylenders who fear losing income. Kanik said there is plenty of work for Roma under social programs specially designed by the cabinet. MS

Opposition "Smer" (Direction) party leader Robert Fico, who has long advocated cutting social benefits for Roma, said on 23 February that if looting continues some Slovaks might take justice into their own hands and form militias, CTK reported. Economy Minister Pavol Rusko, who is chairman of junior coalition Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO) warned that "every extremism provokes extremism in response," adding that the neighboring Czech Republic is not the only country where "extremists act with baseball bats in their hand." Meanwhile, the Romani Civic Initiative (ROI) on 23 February appealed to members of the Romany minority to stop looting shops and distanced itself from Romany leaders who say such acts are justified, TASR reported. MS

At the start of a two-day visit to Hungary, French President Jacques Chirac told his Hungarian counterpart Ferenc Madl on 23 February that Hungary has the closest ties to France of all the EU candidates, Hungarian media reported the next day. In an interview with "Nepszabadsag" ahead of his visit, Chirac said on 23 February that Hungary "has accomplished in exemplary fashion its preparation for integration into Europe," AP reported. After his talks with Madl, Chirac dispelled allegations that France, Germany, and Britain are planning to create a "fast-track" Europe within the EU, AP reported. "There is no way we are trying to prescribe anything to anyone," he said. "It is not our objective to create a smaller Europe within Europe." Chirac also said several French cabinet ministers, including Hungarian-born Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, intend to visit Budapest in the near future. Madl praised relations between the two countries and Chirac's "personal role" in helping Hungary's transition to democracy and a market economy. Chirac was scheduled to address the Hungarian parliament and hold talks with Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy on 24 February. MS

After a week of protests in the countryside (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004), on 23 February farmers set up roadblocks around Budapest, slowing traffic on some of the main roads leading to the Hungarian capital, AP and AFP reported. Since 16 February, the farmers have hindered traffic at nearly 70 points in the country, using tractors, agricultural vehicles, and automobiles to block off one of two lanes. The protesters complain that they are on the verge of bankruptcy and that their livelihood is in danger because they will be priced out of competition once the organization joins the EU on 1 May. They are demanding higher state subsidies and other measures for the agricultural sector. MS

In its report released on 23 February, the Hungarian National Bank (MNB) raised its year-on-year inflation forecast for 2004 from 6.0 percent to 7.4 percent, and lowered its GDP-growth forecast from 3.2 percent to 3.1 percent, MTI news agency reported. The central bank also expects the budget deficit to be 5.3 percent of GDP in 2004, rather than the government's official target of 4.6 percent. The MNB report argued that the recently announced 185 billion-forint ($880 million) cut in government spending will not be sufficient to lower the budget deficit to the government's target figure of 4.6 percent of GDP, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. MNB Governor Zsigmond Jarai told at a press conference on 23 February that adopting the euro in Hungary in 2008, as anticipated earlier, would demand such a large effort that "it now remains only a theoretical possibility," the daily reported. On a positive note, Jarai said inflation can be significantly reduced in 2005 to an annual average of 4.7 percent. MSZ

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington on 23 February that the United States expects Serbia to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal despite the recent statement by Prime Minister-designate Vojislav Kostunica that cooperation is not a priority for him, the State Department's website announced ( (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 23 February 2004; and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003, and 9 January and 20 February 2004). "We want to see Serbia...integrate in the Euro-Atlantic structures and be part [of] a Europe that's whole, free, and at peace," Boucher said. He added that the new government's agenda will include "accelerating political and economic reforms; building solid relations with the Southeastern European region; and further integrating itself in Europe and abiding by European norms. That includes cooperation with the tribunal." He stressed that "our relations with the new Serbian government will depend on the actions that it takes, and that includes cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. We think that is part of the overall agenda that Serbia needs to have at this moment and we look to the government to carry that out." PM

The EU foreign ministers said in a statement in Brussels on 23 February that they are concerned lest Serbia move away from reforms and cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 23 February 2004; and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003, and 9 January and 20 February 2004). According to the statement, "the Council [of Foreign Ministers] expressed concern at political developments in Serbia following the parliamentary elections of 28 December 2003. It emphasized the interest of the European Union in a Serbia committed to political and economic reform..., full cooperation with [the tribunal], the fight against organized crime, and continued reconciliation and cooperation with neighboring countries." EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten warned of unspecified "consequences" if Serbia does not meet its international political obligations, including cooperation with the tribunal. EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana made similar remarks. RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service noted that currently $340 million in EU assistance and $100 million from the United States could be held back if Brussels and Washington decide to do so. PM

Serbian Prime Minister-designate Kostunica is expected to present his government to the parliament on 2 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Belgrade on 23 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004; and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003, and 9 January and 20 February 2004). The cabinet reportedly will include new ministries for Kosova and for the diaspora, while the ministries dealing with transportation and construction will be consolidated into a single Ministry for Capital Investment. In related news, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on 24 February that the Democratic Party might seek new talks with Kostunica now that its new leadership under Boris Tadic no longer includes two bitter rivals of the prime minister-designate, namely Zoran Zivkovic and Cedomir Jovanovic. PM

The Council of the European Union on 23 February adopted a decision approving the conclusion of the Stabilization and Association Agreement between the EU and Macedonia, which follows the completion of the ratification process in the EU member states, the council's official website announced ( Macedonia and the EU signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement in Luxembourg on 9 April 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 10 April 2001). Solana told "Utrinski vesnik" of 23 February that Macedonia's application for EU membership, which is to be handed over in Dublin on 26 February, will not necessarily receive a negative answer. "The answer will depend on how much progress you have made on the European reform agenda, and at what pace you are progressing. If you spend a lot of time discussing old divisions, it will of course influence the answer in a negative direction," Solana said (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 February 2004). UB

Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said on 23 February that Romania is preparing a "counteroffensive" in response to a recent draft report by the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that is critical of Romania, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 23 February 2004). Geoana said Prime Minister Adrian Nastase will meet in Brussels on 25 February with European Commission President Romano Prodi, Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, European Parliament President Patrick Cox, and members of the European Parliament, where the draft is to be discussed next month. Geoana said Nastase will bring to Brussels not a "declaration of intent," but a "meticulous plan." He said Romania must act to correct shortcomings for which criticism is warranted, but at the same time it must "counteract and explain those points on which the report exaggerates." Meanwhile, President Ion Iliescu said on 23 February that one should extract "the essentials" from the criticism contained in the report, and act to correct what needs to be corrected. However, he said, one should not "panic" or "get hysterical" about it, Mediafax reported. MS

A strike by coal miners in Oltenia province that started on 20 February is affecting coal supplies and endangering the activity of power plants, dpa reported on 23 February, citing Mediafax. The strike was launched to protest the government's plan to break up the state-owned National Lignite Company Oltenia (CNLO) -- a move that could result in significant layoffs. Miners from other Romanian provinces have expressed solidarity with their Oltenia peers and said they are ready to join the strike, according to Mediafax. The CNLO management claims the strike is illegal and has asked the Targu-Jiu tribunal to order that it be halted. MS

Meeting in Brussels on 23 February, the foreign ministers of EU member states decided to extend the one-year travel ban imposed in February 2003 on 17 senior Transdniester leaders, including Igor Smirnov and his two sons, an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). The ban is scheduled to end on 26 February. The ministers said the stance of the separatist leadership, which they say remains unwilling to engage in full efforts to reach a peaceful and comprehensive solution to the conflict with Moldova, is "unacceptable," dpa reported. The statement issued by the ministers said the EU remains committed to "the objective of reaching a peaceful resolution of the conflict in full respect of Moldova's territorial integrity." MS

President Vladimir Voronin told a forum of Moldovan officers on 23 February that "as long as the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) is in power, the country's leadership will not tolerate the resurrection of fascist ideas or manifestations of xenophobia," Infotag reported. Voronin's comments came during a meeting marking the 86th anniversary of the formation of the Soviet Army. The day, known as Red Army Day during the Soviet era, ceased to be an official holiday in Moldova in 1991, and is usually celebrated only by World War II veterans. In his address to the Moldovan officers, Voronin noted that country will celebrate another important date in 2004 -- the 60th anniversary of Moldova's liberation from "Nazi occupation." Voronin's words were apparently directed toward the pro-Romanian opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD). Meanwhile, parliamentary speaker Evgenia Ostapchuk said in Moscow on 23 February that the Moldovan leadership resolutely disassociates itself from the anti-Russian "impertinence of the opposition." Her comments came in response to Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, who expressed concern over anti-Russian demonstrations organized by the PPCD in front of the Russian Embassy in Chisinau in late 2003 and early 2004. MS

Former Moldovan Information and Security Service head Valeriu Pasat has been appointed Unified Energy Systems (EES) Chairman Anatolii Chubais's adviser on foreign economic relations, Infotag reported on 20 February. Pasat was Moldovan ambassador to Russia from 1994-97, and defense minister from 1997-99. He held the position of Information and Security Service head in 1999-2002. Moldova observers link the appointment to a bid by an EES subsidiary in the tender for Moldovan electricity distributors RED Nord and RED Nord-Vest. MS

Twenty-six legislators of the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) decided on 23 February to leave the party together with former Prime Minister and former SDS Chairman Ivan Kostov, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004). Their decision came in response to Nadezhda Mihailova's re-election as SDS chairwoman. The defecting lawmakers have not yet decided whether to remain in the conservative opposition coalition United Democratic Forces (ODS), the largest opposition group in the 240-seat parliament. If the lawmakers leave the coalition, the ODS, which also includes the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union-National Union, the Democratic Party, and the Social Democratic Party, will lose much of its influence. In an open letter to the party and the media, Kostov criticized Mihailova for not taking responsibility for the SDS's defeat in the 2003 local elections. "You degenerated from a causal and reformist party into a party of the political status quo; into a clique pursuing selfish goals," bnn Kostov as saying in the letter. "The UDF is no longer able to defend the political ideals that I share." UB

EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen told Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi in Brussels on 23 February that Bulgaria stands an excellent chance of closing the remaining four chapters of the EU's acquis communautaire by the end of June and could sign the accession agreement in early 2005, reported. Bulgaria still has to close the chapters pertaining to competition, agriculture, regional policy, and finances. Alluding to the European Parliament's recent criticism of Romania, Pasi said he does not believe Bulgaria has to wait for other candidates on its way to joining the European Union. He added, however, that Bulgaria will fully support Romania's efforts to join the EU because both countries can benefit if Romania joins the union as soon as possible (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). UB

More than four months into the presidency of Ilham Aliyev, there is a subtle, yet dynamic shift under way in Azerbaijani foreign policy. Although overshadowed by the more dramatic change of leadership in neighboring Georgia, recent developments in Baku could harbor even greater implications for the complex geopolitics of the Southern Caucasus.

In the wake of recent visits to Paris and Moscow, Aliyev is now set to go to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Iran in coming months. And with Baku emerging as the "center of gravity" for several key issues -- ranging from the competition of interests among Russia, the United States, Iran, and Turkey to the frustrating stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh -- such a shift merits scrutiny.

Azerbaijan's recent overtures to both Russia and Iran have raised concern in Washington. Aliyev assured Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow that no foreign troops will be permanently stationed in Azerbaijan, a statement that constitutes a seeming retreat from positions outlined during Aliyev's December meeting in Baku with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, where the possible deployment of U.S. or NATO troops to provide security for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline was raised. In addition, Azerbaijan is reportedly considering an Iranian proposal for "military cooperation."

This subtle shift in Azerbaijan's foreign policy follows a difficult early period for the Aliyev government. The final act in the drama of the Aliyev family's dynastic succession was capped by a clumsily managed presidential election on 15 October that sparked immediate protests by the country's normally divided opposition. Encouraged by a sense that the "successor son" was seriously weakened by the incapacitation of the "paternal predecessor," some opposition parties apparently gambled on outright confrontation from the start, but were quickly overwhelmed by the security forces, which resorted to the standard methods of violence and mass arrests.

That harsh crackdown appears to have contained the internal tensions, at least for the time being. But the swift recourse to repression and the lingering issue of Aliyev's legitimacy pose serious questions over his longer-term prospects. Moreover, the West -- including, the United States -- has criticized the postelection arrests more harshly than has been the case in the past.

With domestic vulnerability increasingly visible beneath a veneer of seeming security and stability, there might be an impetus to seek new avenues for consolidating the new president's power and prestige. Thus, it is a domestic agenda that is driving Aliyev's first foray into foreign policy. The potential risks of such a grand maneuver aside, this foray nevertheless offers the potential of a substantial geopolitical reward.

In Paris last month during his first foreign visit, Aliyev took advantage of perceived differences between Paris and Washington to try to drive a wedge between, on one hand, the French and Russia co-chairmen of the complacent OSCE Minsk Group and, on the other, their U.S. counterpart, by brokering a telephone discussion of Karabakh between the French and Russian presidents. Aliyev also suggested to French President Jacques Chirac that a new initiative to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is needed.

Aliyev took a similar line during his visit to Moscow earlier this month. There soon could be a degree of new Russian pressure directed against the Armenians over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, mainly due to the lure of Aliyev's offers of energy deals, military cooperation, and, most importantly for Moscow, an abrupt end to Azerbaijan's flirtation with NATO.

Moscow can afford to entertain such Azerbaijani overtures without incurring any real threat to its strategic relationship with Armenia because of the extent of Russian leverage over Armenia. This leverage was amply demonstrated by the recent one-sided "assets-for-debt" arrangement, which ceded to Russia strategic control over much of the Armenian economy.

There is still a general debate, however, over the extent and significance of the apparent shift in Azerbaijan's geopolitical priorities. Some observers contend that Aliyev remains committed to continuing his father's foreign policy of containing the competing interests of Russia and the West in a manageable equilibrium that ultimately serves Azerbaijani interests.

But unlike his forceful father, former President Heidar Aliyev, Ilham Aliyev lacks the experience and the sheer tenacity required to manage such a high-stakes balancing act. Moreover, he does not yet enjoy the unquestioned and unrivaled hold on power that his father did.

These constraints, combined with the onset of Western pressure, cast doubt on the Azerbaijani leadership's ability to effect and continue such an ambitious shift in policy. But regardless of the outcome, it seems clear that Azerbaijan's shifting trajectory could impact the delicate regional balance of power, possibly edging the United States and Russia back toward the confines of the zero-sum game that has characterized the South Caucasus for so long.

UN spokesman in Afghanistan Manoel de Almeida e Silva said on 22 February that four commanders belonging to the Jamiat-e Islami faction were killed in Sholgara District of Balkh Province in "brief fighting" on 18 February, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) announced. A joint Afghan/UNAMA security commission visiting the area confirmed the incident and identified eight commanders loyal to Junbish-e Melli party as suspects in the slayings. Arrest warrants, carrying the support of Junbish leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum, have been issued for the suspects, De Almeida e Silva said. No further violence has been reported in the area. In 2003, Sholgara was the scene of factional fighting between Jamiat and Junbish loyalists, but it has remained calm since a cease-fire was signed in August and Kabul-based police were deployed in the area (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July and 20 October 2003). AT

UN spokesman in Afghanistan de Almeida e Silva said on 22 February that while the disarming of fighters has been completed in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, they are yet to be demobilized and reintegrated, the UNAMA announced. De Almeida e Silva declined to give a date when the full disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program would be completed. He said that the main phase of DDR will be launched taking into consideration unspecified lessons learned during the pilot phase. General Dostum, the principal warlord in northern Afghanistan, has been reluctant to surrender his weapons, saying that his side will follow suit when regional leaders in other parts of Afghanistan lay down their arms (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2004). AT

Lakhdar Brahimi, former top UN envoy to Afghanistan, said more NATO forces are needed to help the Afghan government improve security and disarm local warlords ahead of upcoming elections, AP reported on 24 February. Brahimi said the warlords and Taliban-led groups threaten to undo Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's efforts to rebuild the country. NATO agreed in October to expand its 6,000-strong Stability and Assistance Force in Afghanistan beyond Kabul (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 October 2003 and 23 January 2004), but member countries have been reluctant to send more troops. Brahimi, currently the top adviser on Iraq to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said he fears the pace and scale of the expansion currently under way might "not be enough." AT

The state-funded Kabul daily "Anis" published a commentary on 23 February saying that it "is clear that no one except [Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman] Karzai can confidently and optimistically anticipate success in the forthcoming elections." The commentary then focuses on the leaders of the former mujahedin factions, adding that they "failed to become the protectors of the people after" coming to power in 1992. "Anis" claims that Afghans "detest" these leaders and adds that if they run for president, they will certainly lose outside of their power bases. According to "Anis," the Afghan people "will certainly take their revenge by making their wishes known through the ballot boxes," and will vote for someone "who does not have a biography similar" to those of the mujahedin leaders. Karzai was also part of the mujahedin, having worked with one of the Pakistan-based factions and having served in the first mujahedin government as deputy foreign minister. "Anis," however, seems to be distinguishing former lower-ranking mujahedin members from the factional leaders whose battles for power devastated Afghanistan and led to the emergence of the Taliban. AT

Khorasan Province Governor-General Hassan Rasuli on 23 February dismissed the possibility of sabotage as the cause of an 18 February railroad disaster in northeastern Iran that left about 300 dead, IRNA reported. State agencies, however, are still investigating the incident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004), and the casualty figures have not been finalized. Mohammad Maqduri, an official from the Khorasan Province governorate, revised an earlier report of 315 dead downward to 289, according to IRNA. Maqduri added that 460 people were injured. Some 150 state employees were killed, including the Nishabur governor, the local electricity board chief, and the fire chief. Twenty-five of the dead have been identified, he said. BS

Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi told a 23 February meeting of IRGC Welfare Department employees that the extent of public participation in the previous week's parliamentary elections was an event of epic proportions, IRNA reported. "The well-informed Iranian people realized the importance of the occasion, and with their wise and alert participation in the election, they demonstrated their political maturity and awareness to the world," Rahim-Safavi said. This participation, he added, had neutralized efforts by the United States to "prevent Islam from becoming a global power." BS

The website of the pro-reform Interior Ministry has reported that on 17 February IRGC commanders met at a base on Tehran's Azadi Avenue and were informed that the country's senior leadership backs the Abadgaran list of parliamentary candidates, ISNA reported on 18 February. That list of mostly conservative candidates was then distributed among the military commanders. IRGC spokesman Masud Jazayeri rejected the Interior Ministry account, ISNA reported. Last year there were press reports that IRGC personnel were being encouraged to run for parliament (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 October 2003). "Thousands" of IRGC and Basij personnel reportedly were deployed in major cities before the election, London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 5 February, citing an anonymous "reformist lawyer." BS

Seven people were killed and 38 were injured in postelection violence on 21 February in the towns of Andimeshk and Izeh in Khuzestan Province and the town of Firuzabad in Fars Province, IRNA reported on 22 February. There was more unrest in Boirahmad va Kohkiluyeh Province on 21 February, according to IRNA. A Khuzestan Province official identified only as the deputy governor-general for political and security affairs said that on 21 February four people were killed when a mob tried to attack the governor's office in Izeh, but was repulsed by police, ISNA reported. The mob then attacked the municipality, the Justice Department, and banks. The official said the police dispersed the attackers "by firing at them and throwing tear-gas canisters." Thirty people were reportedly arrested. BS

Abadan parliamentary representative Ahmad Meidari said on 21 February that although there was some violence in Izeh, nobody was killed, ISNA reported. Dezful representative Ali Seyyed-Aghamiri confirmed that violence occurred in Izeh and added that government property was destroyed, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. Deputy Interior Minister for Law Enforcement Affairs Asqar Ahmadi said on 22 February that there are no security problems in Izeh, Dashti, or Firuzabad, ISNA reported, adding that any violence was connected with the election. "A number of people were injured during the protests, and a number of government buildings were destroyed," he said. "However, no one was killed." BS

A report released by the United Nations assessment team on elections has concluded that national elections could be held in Iraq by year-end or in early 2005 if certain conditions are met, the UN announced on 23 February ( The assessment team concluded that most Iraqis do not support a proposed plan by the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for caucus-style elections. However, the UN reported that a "range of Iraqi stakeholders" said they could establish a legal framework for balloting by May. If that happens, and other unspecified conditions are met, the UN team concluded, "elections could be held by the end of 2004 or shortly after." The report estimates that once an electoral framework is set, it would take at least eight months to organize national elections. The report also recommends that an Iraqi election commission be established as soon as possible. The UN team supported the 30 June handover date in its report, as well as the agreement among "many" Iraqis that a single elected assembly should be chosen that would draft a constitution and act as the principal lawmaking body in Iraq. KR

The UN also called on the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council to enter into intensified discussions with the world body on security arrangements that will facilitate its return to Iraq, the UN News Center reported on 23 February ( "The United Nations is ready to play a supporting role -- in helping to facilitate political consensus, as well as in offering technical advice on elections -- if the people of Iraq so request it, the [UN] Security Council mandates the organization to play that role, and appropriate agreements are made to provide security for our own personnel," the UN assessment team wrote in its report. Team member Carina Perelli, director of the UN Electoral Assistance Division, told reporters at UN headquarters in New York on 23 February that "we will now wait to hear from the Iraqis and the CPA to see whether they accept the report and our recommendations and what are the future steps.... The UN and the UN Electoral Assistance Division stands ready to contribute to this process if the Iraqis and the CPA...consider that our help is necessary." KR

Hadi al-Amiri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) armed wing, the Badr Brigades, has said the organization should be allowed to play a greater role in maintaining security in Iraq, the London-based daily "Al-Hayat" reported on 23 February. Badr Brigades members are "tracking down the terrorist elements coming from abroad, in accordance with the law and in coordination with the Interior Ministry's services," al-Amiri said. "We have the capabilities and the experience, together with a good presence among the people, and this enables us to play a broad security role in Iraq." Al-Amiri said, however, that Badr's level of involvement in Interior Ministry activities is "limited." He also criticized the coalition's approach on security and said "the security issue would be resolved in a very effective manner if it were assigned to the Badr organization." The U.S.-led coalition had made several attempts to disarm Badr forces since taking power in Iraq last spring. SCIRI claims to have some 10,000 forces in the brigade. KR

Sami Dunmuz, head of the Islamic Movement for the Turkomans of Iraq, issued a statement on 21 February criticizing the draft law on state administration being debated by the Iraqi Governing Council because it does not explicitly recognize the Turkomans as a "third nationality," London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 22 February. "We...declare that unless the new Iraqi constitution specifically mentions our legitimate rights and guarantees them, we will consider ourselves not bound to implement any of its principles, basic provisions, recommendations, resolutions, and substance," the statement noted. The Turkoman representative on the Iraqi Governing Council, Songul Chabuk, told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that she "would never" make any concessions regarding the Turkomans' rights. "I have urged the Governing Council to phrase the constitutional provision pertaining to language as follows: 'The Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkoman languages are the country's official languages,'" she said. Chabuk also said she does not believe Dunmuz's threats are serious and said that "we will settle everything through dialogue." KR