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Newsline - February 25, 2004

The government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, which was dismissed on 24 February, will continue working until a new prime minister and government are confirmed, Russian media reported. President Putin named Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko as acting prime minister. Under Article 111 of the Russian Constitution, Putin must nominate a new prime minister within two weeks, RIA-Novosti reported, meaning that a candidate must be submitted to the Duma by 9 March. The Duma will then have one week -- until 16 March -- to confirm or reject Putin's choice. Russia's presidential election will be held on 14 March. ITAR-TASS reported, however, that Article 8 of the federal constitutional law authorizes the president to appoint a deputy prime minister as acting prime minister for up to two months before nominating a new prime minister. JAC

Presidential candidate Irina Khakamada told reporters in Moscow on 24 February that she is calling on all candidates in the 14 March election to drop out of the race before 8 March to protest alleged violations of election laws by the state-controlled federal television channels and by President Putin, RosBalt reported. However, she said that she will not withdraw on her own and wants all other candidates to do so as well. Ivan Rybkin told Ekho Moskvy on 24 February that he is not ready to drop out of the race, but that his gut feeling is to support Khakamada's proposal for a collective withdrawal. Sergei Glazev announced on 24 February that he will take two days to think over his campaign manager's public recommendation that he withdraw his candidacy because of a "total news blackout" and pressure on regional supporters, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2004). JAC

While most political analysts considered former Prime Minister Kasyanov's dismissal as inevitable, some connected the timing of President Putin's announcement with the upcoming presidential election, Russian media reported. Indem Foundation head Georgii Satarov suggested that the dismissal reinforces in the public's mind that "it is the president who controls the situation," Interfax reported. Mark Urnov of the Ekspertiz foundation, told the dismissal was a "public-relations action directed at demonstrating to the population the activeness and strength of the president and to raise his rating so that he receives no less than 70 or 75 percent [of the vote]." Urnov noted that the threat by the other "non-influential" presidential candidates -- Khakamada, Glazev, and Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov -- to withdraw from the election could delegitimize the process in the eyes of the world opinion and a significant part of the Russian population. "Therefore, it is especially important now to create a powerful informational hook, to say, 'Look, the president is occupied with serious matters, is reforming the government, and is active in general, and such small fry can do nothing,'" Urnov said. JAC

Most central newspapers mentioned the same names as possible successors to dismissed Prime Minister Kasyanov. "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 25 February listed acting Prime Minister Khristenko, first deputy presidential administration head Dmitrii Kozak, acting Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, deputy presidential administration head Igor Shuvalov, and acting Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin as likely candidates. However, the daily noted that some of them have obvious drawbacks. For example, Ivanov is "insufficiently charismatic," and Kudrin is "weak" organizationally. To these names, "Izvestiya" added acting Deputy Prime Minister Boris Aleshin and presidential administration head Dmitrii Medvedev. JAC

The new acting prime minister, Viktor Khristenko, 46, has seen his share of government reshuffles. In the two years following his arrival in Moscow in 1997, he held five different posts under four different prime ministers. He was born in Chelyabinsk, and in 1979 he graduated from the Chelyabinsk Polytechnical Institute. In 1991-94, he served as deputy head of the Chelyabinsk Oblast administration, and in 1994-96, he was first deputy oblast administration head, according to In the summer of 1997, then-Finance Minister Anatolii Chubais summoned Khristenko to Moscow, naming him deputy finance minister. In the spring of 1998, he was named deputy prime minister under Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko. In the fall of 1998, he became first deputy finance minister in the government of Yevgenii Primakov. In May 1999, he was named first deputy prime minister under Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin. In Kasyanov's government, he served as first deputy prime minister and, later, as deputy prime minister. JAC

Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, speaking before President Putin dismissed the government on 24 February, told journalists that day that the 13-percent flat personal income-tax rate will not be raised to 17 percent, the "Izvestiya" website ( reported. The newspaper had earlier reported that the rate might be raised next year to 17 percent and that the unified social tax's top rate would be lowered from 35.6 to 26 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2004). Following Putin's dismissal of the government, Center for Political Technologies Deputy General Director Aleksei Makarkin wrote on that Kasyanov had guaranteed "the inviolability of the flat rate," while "the 'king's men' in the government are in favor of increasing the taxation of individuals." Audit Chamber auditor Vladimir Panskov told the Federation Council's Tax Policy Committee on 24 February that a progressive income-tax scale is needed "for people who receive super-high incomes," reported. JB

Lawyers for former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, Yukos security official Aleksei Pichugin, and Menatep Chairman Platon Lebedev said on 24 February that their clients are being held in harsh prison conditions, Ekho Moskvy reported. Pichugin's lawyer, Tatyana Akimtseva, said she has seen signs of injections on her client's body and has complained that psychotropic substances were used on him. She also said Pichugin has lost about 30 kilograms and that medics say he is suffering from diabetes and tuberculosis. Lebedev's lawyer, Yevgenii Baru, said his client is suffering from high blood pressure and is losing his sight. Khodorkovskii lawyer Robert Amsterdam said he has not been allowed to visit his client in his prison cell and that Khodorkovskii is permitted only one shower per week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). Genrikh Padva told ITAR-TASS on 24 February that he and other lawyers for Khodorkovskii have appealed to the Moscow Municipal Court's presidium for their client's release. In December, Moscow's Basmannyi Raion Court extended Khodorkovskii's period of pretrial detention until 25 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003). JB

The next issue of the news magazine "Novoye vremya," which is due out on 25 February, will not be published because its employees were unable to enter the magazine's central Moscow offices on 24 February. Russian media reported. A group of people representing Primeks, a firm claiming ownership of the building in which the offices are located, entered the offices on 19 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). "Novoye vremya" Editor in Chief Aleksandr Pumpyanskii told Ekho Moskvy on 24 February that he and other staffers found the magazine's offices locked and that security guards said they are under orders not to let anyone in. Articles for the magazine's next issue are in the offices, and the staff will try to "recover them with the help of the police and the judiciary," Pumpyanskii said. Concerning Primeks' property claim, he said: "We have filed three petitions with the Arbitration Court and a criminal case has also been instituted, but I do not know when they will be heard. Unfortunately, it does not depend on us." JB

With the European Union and Russia locked in a dispute over the EU's demand that Russia extend its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) to the 10 states set to become EU members on 1 May, and unnamed European officials even threatening sanctions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2004), several European governments are apparently seeking to reduce tensions, Western and Russian media reported. French President Jacques Chirac said on 24 February that the EU must show more respect for Russia's national interests as Moscow adjusts to the EU's enlargement, Reuters reported. "Russia is making an enormous effort to regain its rightful place in the world," said Chirac, who was in Budapest. "We must convince Russia that we regard its efforts with friendship." Ireland's ambassador to Russia, Justin Harman, denied in an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 24 February that the EU is considering sanctions against Russia. Asked about the fate of Russian democracy and the conflict in Chechnya, Harman said that "some aspects" of the situation in Russia are causing "some concern," but he stressed that the EU wants a "nonconfrontational" dialogue on such issues. JB

Irish Ambassador to Russia Harman was asked in an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 24 February whether the meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels the previous day had touched on the issue of Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia, which are among the 10 countries scheduled to join the EU on 1 May. The EU is aware of Russian concern about Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states, Harman said. The EU's position is that the human rights situation in the Baltic states meets the EU's "fundamental criteria," he said, adding that "we recognize that there are always improvements that can be made." Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov said he is convinced that Russia and the EU jointly "must resolve the issue of the status of Russians living on the territory of the Baltic states," Interfax reported on 24 February. "Russia has the right to and must insist that our compatriots enjoy the same rights as citizens of Latvia and Estonia," Mironov said. JB

Baltic Fleet press service chief Anatolii Lobskii told ITAR-TASS on 24 February that a NATO E-3 AWACS surveillance aircraft began carrying out reconnaissance missions near Kaliningrad Oblast on 23 February. On 24 February, it crossed Lithuanian airspace and "continued its activities in the immediate vicinity" of Kaliningrad's border, he claimed. Lobskii said that despite assurances from officials in the Baltic states that they will not facilitate NATO monitoring of Russian facilities, "the Baltic Fleet command has no doubt that the flights over the Baltic states are not just a demonstration, and that reconnaissance tasks are being performed." Latvia's armed forces command, he added, have "openly declared" that the country's airfields and infrastructure will be used "in the interests of NATO." Aleksei Arbatov, who heads the Institute of World Economy and International Relations' Center for International Security Studies, said such flights will negatively affect Russian-NATO relations. While Russia is "dismantling its intelligence installations abroad," including the Lourdes listening post on Cuba, NATO is expanding its intelligence-gathering efforts, including those aimed at Russia, Arbatov said. JB

A 24-year old medical student from Africa named Amaro Lima was found in Voronezh on the evening of 21 February with multiple knife wounds in the chest, Regnum reported on 24 February. He later died in a local hospital. According to an unidentified representative of the African Students Community, seven African students have been killed in Voronezh over the last seven years. The representative said that Russian students have helped foreign students and that the university has created a voluntary brigade for the protection of foreigners, but he added that local police never come when called if skinheads are involved (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2002). According to, more than 100 foreign students at the Voronezh State Medical Academy staged a protest on 24 February against such police inaction and demanded a meeting with the mayor. The students are threatening to leave the university en masse if something isn't done. They also appealed to President Putin to intervene. The students say Lima was killed by skinheads, but the local prosecutor declined to confirm this. JAC

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul met on 24 February, the first day of a three-day official visit to Moscow, with President Putin, Russian media reported. The two men discussed bilateral relations and cooperation, including trade and economic ties and cooperation in the fight against international terrorism. Putin specifically expressed appreciation for what he termed Ankara's sensitivity to Russian concerns about "terrorism" (presumably meaning the war in Chechnya) since the advent to power in late 2002 of Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, Interfax reported. In a 23 February interview with ITAR-TASS pegged to Gul's visit, Russian Ambassador to Turkey Petr Stegnyi said that "official Ankara is showing readiness to understand Russia's sensitivity about the Chechen problem." Putin also noted that bilateral trade increased by $1 billion in 2003, reaching $6.5 billion. Gul told ITAR-TASS that all problems related to Turkish imports of natural gas from Russia via the Blue Stream pipeline have now been resolved (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 August and 21 November 2003). Gul also mentioned favorable prospects for expanding bilateral military and military-technical cooperation. LF

More than 200 representatives of opposition political parties, including the Communist Party, Yabloko, and the Party of Peace and Unity, rallied in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, on 24 February, demanding the resignation of Kalmykian President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, ITAR-TASS reported. Picketers were carrying signs reading "Kirsan -- the misfortune of Kalmykia, the shame of Russia" and "Ilyumzhinov -- resign." Organizers of the action plan to begin a march on Moscow on 27 February. One organizer, Vladimir Bambaev, told the agency that the action was a logical continuation of a protest in Elista on 9 December. During that demonstration, several dozen people tried to storm the government building after preliminary results of the 7 December State Duma and republican-legislature elections were announced, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 26 January. JAC

Deputy presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Sergei Yepifantsev told ITAR-TASS that only 20 people participated in the 24 February Elista demonstration, which he said was over in 15 minutes. He said the protesters were "a radical minority wing of the opposition" and the majority of public parties and associations did not support the rally. In December, Kalmykian President Ilyumzhinov sent a telegram to President Putin asking for help in restoring order following the 9 December protest and the envoy's office was asked to control the situation, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta." JAC

Former Armenian Prime Minister Aram Sargsian told journalists in Yerevan on 24 February that dozens of members of his opposition Hanrapetutiun Party were questioned by police during the early hours of that morning, and at least three party members were arrested, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Plainclothes police officers searched the apartment of Hanrapetutiun activist Armen Rubinian and the garage of Romik Mkhitarian, head of a Yerevan district branch of Hanrapetutiun, reportedly looking for weapons. Police spokesman Sayad Shirinian said "large quantities" of arms and ammunition were confiscated during the search operations. Sargsian and another leading Hanrapetutiun member, Albert Bazeyan, accused the authorities of launching a new wave of repression comparable to the mass arrests that followed protests in February-March 2003 against the perceived rigging of the presidential-election outcome. LF

Experts from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission released in Yerevan on 24 February a 20-page list of proposed amendments to Armenia's election legislation, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The authors describe the existing Election Code as constituting "the basis for the conduct of democratic elections," but argue that further improvements are needed to eliminate the potential for fraud. Specifically, they argue that the existing mechanism for selecting the members of election commissions at all levels fails to ensure "an adequate balance of major political interests," and propose reducing the number of members appointed by the president. They also call for the prompt release of a precinct-by- precinct breakdown of election results and propose the introduction of perforated ballot papers with serial numbers printed on the stub to facilitate tracking the number of ballots issued and used. LF

British parliamentarian Terry Davis, who is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur on the Karabakh conflict, held talks in Stepanakert on 23 February with the president, foreign minister, and parliament chairman of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic -- Arkadii Ghukasian, Ashot Ghulian, and Oleg Esayan, Noyan Tapan reported on 25 February. Davis also met with Armenians from other regions of Azerbaijan who took refuge in Karabakh. Ghukasian stressed his commitment to a peaceful solution of the conflict, at the same time pointing out that the exclusion of Karabakh representatives from talks between Armenia and Azerbaijani hinders such a settlement. On 24 February, Davis met in Yerevan with President Robert Kocharian, who briefed him on Armenia's position on resolving the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Ilham Aliyev released a statement on 24 February pegged to the12th anniversary of the killing by Armenian and Soviet army troops of more than 600 residents of the Azerbaijani-populated village of Khodjaly in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turan reported. Aliyev characterized those killings as "one of the most horrible crimes against humanity," and as the continuation of a policy of "ethnic cleansing and genocide" directed by Armenians against Azerbaijanis over almost two centuries. Aliyev pledged that the Azerbaijani leadership will continue its efforts to secure a "fair" solution to the conflict. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili, accompanied by Georgia's foreign, defense, interior, and finance ministers, flew to Washington on 22 February for a five-day official visit, Georgian media reported. Saakashvili said following talks on 24 February with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that even after the current U.S.-funded "Train and Equip" program ends in May, Washington will continue to train "thousands" of Georgian service personnel. Saakashvili also met on 24 February with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Meuller, and with World Bank President James Wolfensohn and senior IMF officials. Caucasus Press quoted Wolfensohn as saying the bank will resume implementation of its programs in Georgia next week. LF

Nato Chkheidze, whose husband Zaza Okuashvili is founder and president of the Omega Group, which is under suspicion of evading payment of excise duties on imported cigarettes, was refused permission on 24 February by the first channel of Georgian television to make a live statement responding to accusations made against Omega by Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili, Caucasus Press and the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 23 February 2004). Addressing parliament later that day, Chkheidze accused Okruashvili of oppressing business and the independent media and demanded that he be dismissed. LF

Deputies from President Saakashvili's National Movement and from the Union for Democratic Revival, which is headed by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, exchanged insults and then resorted to fisticuffs on 24 February during a debate in which each side accused the other of fuelling a confrontation between Abashidze's supporters and the central government, Caucasus Press and the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported. Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze sought to defuse tensions, insisting that the problems in relations between Adjaria and Tbilisi can be resolved only through peaceful dialogue. LF

Paata Mskhiladze, an expert on international law at the Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office, said on 24 February that the extradition in October 2002 to Russia of five Chechens apprehended two months previously after entering Georgia illegally was in accordance with international law, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 8, 9, and 10 October 2002). The five men appealed their extradition to the European Court of Human Rights, which sent a team of experts to Tbilisi earlier this week to investigate their case. Four of the five men have since been convicted on unspecified charges by a court in Russia's Stavropol Krai. LF

The opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), which held its founding congress on 21 February in Almaty, has called for Kazakhstan to establish much closer ties with Russia to counterbalance President Nursultan Nazarbaev's multi-lateral foreign policy, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 24 February. The DVK also called for wider use of the Russian language in Kazakhstan. The imprisoned Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, a DVK founder who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office when he was governor of Pavlodar Oblast, was elected chairman of the party at the 21 February congress. The DVK will seek the support of the European Parliament and the OSCE in its bid to be registered by the Justice Ministry in time to take part in the parliamentary elections this fall. BB

Toktaim Umetalieva, head of the Association of Kyrgyz Nongovernmental and Noncommercial Organizations, told a news conference in Bishkek on 24 February that a contract signed by Kyrgyzstan's Kara Balta Mines and the German firm RWE NUKEM nuclear-engineering firm to process raw uranium will not benefit Kyrgyzstan, reported. Umetalieva said the contract would set a precedent for storing radioactive waste in Kyrgyzstan and could endanger financial aid from international donors. At present, processed uranium is selling for $20-$30 a kilogram on world markets. The joint project is intended to produce a total of 40 to 60 tons of processed uranium. Some of the proceeds from the operation are to be used to clean up Kyrgyz nuclear-waste dumps. BB

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Ashgabat on 24 February for talks with Turkmen President Sapamurat Niyazov,, ITAR-TASS, and IRNA reported. The Iranian side emphasized resolving issues related to the Caspian Sea, while the Turkmen side appeared to be particularly interested in progress toward completing a reservoir on the Turkmen-Iranian border and a commitment by Iran to build a polyethylene plant in Turkmenistan. Iranian firms are currently building gas-liquefaction facilities. Niyazov and Kharrazi also discussed prospects for an oil pipeline that would link Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. BB

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office on 24 February authorized the extradition of former Tajik Interior Minister Yakub Salimov to Dushanbe, ITAR-TASS reported. The Tajik authorities have been seeking Salimov's extradition for several years. He was detained by Moscow law enforcement officers in June, and has been held in Lefortovo Prison while details of the extradition were worked out. The former close associate of President Imomali Rakhmonov has been accused of treason, organizing an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1997, and other crimes against the state. Moscow insisted that the Tajik authorities promise that Salimov will not be sentenced to death. Some Tajik opposition political figures have insisted that Rakhmonov's apparent animosity against Salimov is personal rather than political. BB

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Tashkent on 24 February for a three-day visit and met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov,,, and ITAR-TASS reported on 24 and 25 February. Rumsfeld reportedly spoke warmly of Uzbek initiatives to strengthen regional security and to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. He told a news conference after his meeting with Karimov that the United States has no plans to set up permanent military bases in Central Asia, but intends to make flexible use of the temporary facilities it now has there. BB

Shortly before U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's arrival in Tashkent, the Uzbek authorities announced the release from a Tashkent prison of 62-year-old pensioner Fatima Mukadirova, who was sentenced to six years in a maximum-security prison on a charge of religious extremism, including membership in the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party, the Tribune-uz website ( reported on 24 February. Her sentence was reduced to a fine equivalent to $280. Human rights activists have said the real reason for her imprisonment was because she drew the attention of international human rights groups to the death of her son in prison. Rumsfeld told a news conference on 24 February that he is unfamiliar with the details of the case, but U.S. Ambassador to Tashkent Jon Robert Purnell characterized the release as a positive step. BB

Belarusian Finance Minister Mikalay Korbut and Russian First Deputy Finance Minister Aleksei Ululyukaev agreed to a loan on 24 February that will allow gas deliveries to Belarus to continue, AFP and ITAR-TASS reported the next day. The amount of the loan will depend on the volume of gas Belarus needs from Russian gas giant Gazprom, a total that is being negotiated. Moscow and Minsk have been arguing over the price of natural gas, which Belarus was receiving at subsidized prices. Russia requested a 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz in exchange for a continuation of the low prices, but Belarus refused and its gas imports from Russia were briefly cut off (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). PB

Natallya Pyatkevich, spokeswoman for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, said on 25 February that last week's cutoff of natural-gas supplies from Russia was made by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belapan reported. Pyatkevich said that "the decision to impose a gas cutoff on an entire country in minus 20 degree weather could only be made by [Putin] personally." PB

Forty well-known Belarusian writers have signed an open letter to Information Minister Uladzimir Rusakevich protesting the upcoming closure of "Byarozka," the country's last children's magazine published in the Belarusian language, Belapan reported on 25 February. The magazine first appeared in 1924 and has published the works of many popular writers. The Information Ministry ordered the magazine's publishing rights to be transferred to a different publisher on 14 January and "Byarozka's" editor in chief, Uladzimir Yahowdzik, was sacked one month earlier. The seven remaining staff members will be laid off on 1 April, said Deputy Editor in Chief Uladzimir Maroz. PB

Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Serhiy Yermilov told Interfax Ukraine on 25 February that oil for the Odesa-Brody pipeline might begin entering the pipeline in April-May. Yermilov noted that Poland and Ukraine have reached an agreement about transporting oil by rail from the present end of the pipeline in Brody to Polish refineries. According to Yermilov, between 1 million and 5 million tons of oil would be transported to Poland by rail annually. Confirming Yermilov's statement, Faouzi Bensarsa, a representative of the European Commission, confirmed that contracts exist for the purchase of Caspian oil by Ukraine, Interfax Ukraine reported on 24 February. The agency also reported that ChevronTexaco is awaiting clarification from Ukraine concerning tariff rates to be charged for the Odesa-Brody pipeline. RK

Arnold Ruutel said on 24 February during a speech at the Estonian Opera House in Tallinn marking the 86th anniversary of Estonia's 1918 declaration of independence, that the current constitution should not be amended hastily, BNS reported on 25 February. The parliament has recently discussed amendments that would replace the current system under which parliament elects the president with direct presidential elections, and which would reduce presidential powers. Ruutel said the constitution is "a repository of permanent values...balancing the form of government and legal system of our state," and that political reasons lie behind some current amendment proposals. SG

NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Forces Commander Major General Gary Winterberger on 24 February said Russia was informed of the flight details and route of a NATO E-3 AWACS surveillance aircraft that flew from Germany to Latvia on 23 February, ITAR-TASS reported. The aircraft's visit to the Baltic region, which was planned last year under the Partnership for Peace program, has led to Russian and Belarusian claims that the aircraft is conducting a reconnaissance mission (see Russian item in "RFE/RL Newsline Part 1"). The plane flew from Germany to Latvia on 23 February, and to Lithuania the next day. In Latvia, Winterberger held talks with Latvian armed forces commander Rear Admiral Gaidis Andrejs Zeibots, Defense Ministry State Secretary Edgars Rinkevics, and other officials before a demonstration fight along Latvia's western coast. In addition to exhibiting the plane's capabilities to Latvian and Lithuanian state and military officials, the visit is also intended to check the compatibility of NATO's airspace-surveillance systems with the Baltic states' BALTNET system. SG

Rolandas Paksas announced at a press conference on 24 February that has requested parliament to begin impeachment proceedings against its chairman, Rolandas Paulauskas, ELTA reported. Paulauskas is accused of violating the constitution and his oath of office by disclosing classified information last October to the heads of parliament factions, some of whom did not have security clearance. The information led to the formation of an ad hoc commission that later approved the grounds of impeachment proceedings against President Paksas. Parliament is required to form an ad hoc commission to investigate president's accusations, which Paulauskas has rejected, saying he never handed any classified information over to anyone and merely informed the faction heads of the conclusions of a State Security Department Report. Meanwhile, Henrikas Zukauskas, the chairman of the Liberal Democratic parliament faction, has told reporters that someone slipped an unsigned report under his door stating that Paulauskas held an account in a U.S. bank through which pharmaceutical companies were contributing money to the Social Liberal's parliamentary-election campaign. Paulauskas, who is chairman of the Social Liberal party, responded by stating that he has no foreign bank accounts. SG

Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner said on 24 February that there is no alternative to the government-proposed fiscal-austerity plan, PAP reported, and that if any element is removed, "the whole construction collapses." He added that the bills will be presented in the Sejm in a way that will make clear to "Poles and markets that the plan is not being watered down." Prime Minister Leszek Miller said the same day that party discipline for the coalition deputies in the Sejm will be enforced in voting on the bills, and repeated that if the plan is not approved the only option is to dissolve the Sejm and hold early parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 27 January 2004; and "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 13 February 2004). The first votes on bills in the plan are set for 5 March. DW

The LNM Group, the world's second-largest steel producer, has won a tender for buying selected production assets of Poland's Huta Czestochowa steel works beating Ukraine's Industrial Union of the Donbas, the Polish and Ukrainian press reported on 23 February. The announcement immediately created a stir in the Ukrainian media and raised questions of possible improprieties in the tender process. Two articles on the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( on 24 February hinted that bribery might have been involved and argued that the selection was a defeat for pro-Western forces in Ukraine. Last October, the LNM Group bought the biggest Polish steel company Polskie Huty Stali for $1.6 billion beating out US Steel. The LNM Group is registered in the Dutch Antilles and has facilities in 12 countries. In 2003, revenues exceeded $12 billion. It has steel-making interests in Kazakhstan, Romania, Algeria, the Czech Republic, and South Africa. RK

The government on 25 February approved Pavel Telicka as new Czech representative on the European Commission, CTK reported. The leadership of the ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) on 24 February unanimously approved the nomination of Telicka. Former Commissioner Milos Kuzvart was among those who attended the CSSD leadership meeting. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla met on 24 February to discuss the appointment with main opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Chairman Miroslav Topolanek. After the meeting, Topolanek said the encounter cannot be called a "consultation," as the prime minister simply announced Telicka's appointment and that the ODS could do nothing but "agree or disagree." Topolanek said "we disagreed" on the basis of what he said was Telicka's poor record as a negotiator with the EU and because of his communist past. MS

The government on 24 February deployed some 1,000 troops to help police maintain order in the face of continued civil unrest among Slovakia's Romany minority, CTK reported. Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda told journalists in Kosice in the evening of 24 February that a combined force of 2,100 police officers and soldiers have been deployed in eastern Slovakia, and that some 70 looters and rioters have been taken into police custody. He said he traveled to Kosice to thank police officers for fulfilling their duties, and added that no crime will go unpunished. Dzurinda added that additional information has confirmed that the civil unrest among the Romany minority has largely been spurred by money lenders who fear they will lose income after welfare cuts are enacted on 1 March. MS

Rioting and looting continued in eastern Slovakia on 24 February, TASR and CTK reported. In Trebisov, where rioting broke out the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003), Roma threw stones at police to protest alleged police brutality. Meanwhile, a grocery store was reportedly looted in the eastern Slovak village of Caklov. President Rudolf Schuster said earlier the same day that the government is to blame for the outbreak of civil unrest, and warned that its social policies could spur further action by those affected by "the growth of poverty [and] the radically worsened social situation of the unemployed, families with [numerous] children, and pensioners," CTK reported. Premier Dzurinda dismissed the criticism during his press conference in Kosice. Earlier, a spokesman for Dzurinda accused President Schuster of "seeking to provoke confrontation" as part of his "presidential campaign," according to TASR. Meanwhile, Ladislav Fizik, chairman of Romany Parliament, rescinded his calls for those who stand to be affected by impending welfare cuts to demonstrate on 25 February. MS

The ruling center-right four-party Slovak coalition lost further support in parliament when Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO) deputy Jozef Banas resigned from his party on 23 February, TASR reported the next day. Banas said he cannot agree with the "immoral party-leadership politics" that catapulted ANO deputy Jozef Heriban to the top of the list of ANO candidates for the Europarliament elections. The coalition can now count on the support of just 67 out of 150 parliamentary deputies. Observers say Dzurinda might soon have to resign, pointing out that Hungarian Coalition Party Chairman Bela Bugar recently said the prime minister should either restore stability in the cabinet or resign once Slovakia joins the EU on 1 May, CTK reported. According to Bugar, the only way to restore stability is by enlisting the support of former Defense Minister Ivan Simko's Free Forum party. Simko, however, has conditioned his party's support for the government on Dzurinda's resignation as prime minister. MS

Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz told the MTI news agency on 24 February that Hungary might extend its military presence in Iraq for an additional year if stabilization efforts continue at their current slow pace, AFP reported. Juhasz noted that such a decision would require parliamentary approval. Juhasz's comments came following a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Hungary George Herbert Walker. Three hundred Hungarian troops, mostly logistics experts, have been serving in Iraq under Polish command since last September. Ten Hungarian soldiers were wounded last week in a terrorist attack in Al-Hillah, some 100 kilometers south of Baghdad. MS

French President Jacques Chirac said in his address to Hungary's parliament on 24 February that France does not wish to create a group of privileged countries inside the European Union, but will support groups of countries moving ahead on certain issues of common interest, Hungarian and international media reported. "We do not want either a divided or a paralyzed Europe," Chirac said, adding that the most determined EU members should be allowed to proceed faster toward integration, MTI news agency reported. In his speech, which came on the last day of his two-day visit to Hungary, Chirac also urged all EU member states to approve the EU's draft constitution. Regarding EU funding, Chirac said the EU must declare financial solidarity with new member states, but that subsidies can only be raised to a certain level, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told reporters after meeting with Chirac that "it is acceptable" to have a small group of countries develop faster in certain areas, as long as they remain open to newcomers, the daily reported. Medgyessy denied that his opinion contradicts that of Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs, who recently said that a "two-speed" Europe is dangerous, as it could lead to the disintegration of the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). MSZ

A joint Hungarian-German commission set up by Prime Minister Medgyessy and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is to probe the fate of missing funds from the former East Germany, dpa and "Magyar Hirlap" reported. The investigation will seek to trace the money moved from Germany after the country's 1990 reunification. A statement released by the German Finance Ministry regarding the commission did not specify any specific sums. However, repeated media reports have alleged that multimillions of Deutsch marks were stashed abroad by East German functionaries after the reunification, when the all-German government took over East German state property and most funds of the communist party. According to these reports, the money was moved either to Hungary or via Hungary to third countries. MS

Dragan Marsicanin, who is vice president of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and was recently elected speaker of the Serbian parliament, said in Belgrade on 24 February that the DSS will "seek solutions that suit the citizens of Serbia and not the American administration" regarding cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Both the United States and the EU recently reminded Belgrade that they expect Serbia to cooperate with the tribunal. DSS leader and Prime Minister-designate Vojislav Kostunica has said that working with the tribunal is "not a priority" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2004; and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003, and 9 January and 20 February 2004). PM

In the morning of 24 February, an earthquake measuring 4.3 on the Richter scale led to panic in Skopje, Macedonian media reported. Immediately after the first tremor, thousands of people went out on the streets. Rumors that aftershocks would soon follow kept tensions high among the citizens of a city that was largely destroyed by a heavy earthquake on 26 July 1963. No deaths or serious material damage were reported, but the electricity grid was shut down automatically and telephone lines broke down immediately after the earthquake, reportedly because of an overload. Several people were slightly injured. UB

During its 23 February session, the Macedonian government decided to dismiss the heads of five administrative bodies because of inefficiency, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. The move was widely expected after Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski's general warning that some government officials must either produce results or face dismissal. Four of the officials were appointed by the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM). The fifth, an ethnic Albanian, is a carryover from the previous conservative-led government (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2003). UB

EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana said in Prishtina on 24 February that Brussels will make $125 million available to Kosova to develop a judiciary that is up to European norms, the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 June and 19 December 2003, and 6 and 13 February 2004). He told Kosovars that the EU expects them to meet all of the international community's eight standards, including launching a dialogue with Belgrade, before the province's final status can be considered. Solana stressed the importance of his plan for a "European partnership" between the EU and Kosova as part of Brussels' involvement with the western Balkans. PM

Kosova's Islamic Community said in a statement in Prishtina that it considers recent measures taken by several officials against the wearing of Islamic headscarves to be a violation of the right to freedom of religion, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 24 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). The Islamic leaders added that they regret that the issue has become politicized at a time when Kosovars have many other political issues to deal with. The leaders added that some unnamed newspapers have sensationalized the debate over headscarves, turning the discussion into what the religious leaders called an attack on "anything to do with Islam." The Islamic Community believes that "true civilization" includes respect for religious and cultural diversity. Most of Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority is of Islamic heritage but highly secular in outlook, as is typical of much of former Yugoslavia, including nominally Roman Catholic and Orthodox regions. PM

A spokesman for High Representative Paddy Ashdown said in Sarajevo on 24 February that Bosnia might miss its chance to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program at the alliance's June summit in Istanbul, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 12, 18, and 19 February 2004). Bosnian politicians have yet to agree on a joint defense minister, although setting up a unified defense structure is one of the preconditions Bosnia must meet if it is to join the program. A NATO spokeswoman in Brussels said that she is doubtful that Bosnia will qualify in time, having already missed a mid-February deadline for agreeing on a candidate. PM

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase on 24 February visited Romanian troops serving in Iraq and held talks with the allied commanders of the three international contingents in which the 1,500 Romanian soldiers are serving, a government press release announced. Nastase met in Al-Basrah with Major General Andrew Steward, commander of the International Division South East, in Al-Nasiriyah with Brigadier General Marco Chiarini, commander of the Joint Italian Forces, and in Babylon with Polish General Mieczislaw Bicniek, under whose command a Romanian engineering unit is serving in Al-Hillah. All three commanders highly praised the combat readiness and the military know-how of the Romanian soldiers. Nastase also decorated the combat banner of Infantry Battalion 26 -- nicknamed the Red Scorpions-- for outstanding merits accumulated in peacekeeping missions in Angola, Albania, Kosova, and Afghanistan. MS

Social Democratic Party spokesman Bogdan Niculescu-Duvaz on 24 February said National Anticorruption Prosecution head Ioan Anamarie must clarify the exact meaning of an "ambiguous" statement he made the previous day, Mediafax reported. Anamarie reportedly said on 23 February that corruption in Romania has intensified and is affecting the highest levels of decision making. Anamarie called the malaise "quasi-institutionalized" and said it has escaped controlling mechanisms and poses the danger of "undermining political legitimacy." MS

EU Foreign and Security Policy chief Javier Solana said in Brussels after meeting on 24 February with Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev that the EU is ready to contribute to the acceleration of a settlement of the Transdniester conflict, Infotag reported. The agency said Tarlev informed Solana of the latest "provocative actions of the Tiraspol administration" in Bendery-Tighina and suggested that the EU set up a commission to monitor developments in the demilitarized zone that partitions the opposing sides in the conflict (see below). A Moldovan delegation headed by Tarlev participated in Brussels in the second round of the EU-Moldova Joint Action Plan talks. The next round of talks on the Joint Action Plan is to be held in Chisinau on 25 March. The plan is to outline relations between Moldova and the EU from 2004-06. MS

The separatist authorities in Tiraspol on 24 February warned that "any attempt to exploit the current situation in Bendery will result in reigniting the conflict and a possible outbreak of new hostilities," Infotag reported. The separatists were reacting to Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova's 20 February call for the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in the demilitarized zone in view of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Bendery-Tighina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004). The 1992 cease-fire agreement placed that town under the control of both Moldovan and Transdniester police forces, but the separatists on 23 February dispatched a team of workers to dismantle the roof of a building hosting the local branch of the Moldovan Department of Information Technologies. Last year, the Tiraspol authorities said Moldova must evacuate its police forces and other governmental institutions from the town by the end of 2003. MS

Representatives of the three mediators in the Transdniester conflict (Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE) met on 24 February in Belgrade to discuss the resumption of negotiations, Infotag reported. Last week, Moldova and Transdniester sent their formal replies to a new plan for Moldova's federalization worked out by the mediators at their 26-27 meeting in Sofia. MS

The Chisinau municipal council on 24 February approved a number of documents that will allow the legal registration of the suspended Antena C radio station and Euro-TV Chisinau, Flux reported. The Audiovisual Coordinating Council on 3 February suspended the broadcasting licenses of the two municipal stations on the grounds that they failed to register as independent judicial entities, as required by Moldovan law. The suspension prompted accusations from the opposition that the authorities were attempting to silence the two stations. The municipal council failed to meet for a long time due to a conflict between the Party of Moldovan Communists and other formations represented on the council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 10 February 2004). MS

Opposition Socialist Party (BSP) Deputy Chairman Rumen Ovcharov announced on 24 February that his party will move a vote of no confidence in the government on 4 March, reported. Ovcharov said the final text of the motion has yet to be drafted, but added that it will certainly contain passages on the government's "policies of social irresponsibility" and the "breach of the citizens' basic constitutional rights." President Georgi Parvanov, who is the BSP's former chairman, said the motion is unlikely to succeed and will not endanger political stability in Bulgaria, but expressed hope that it will spur political debate in the country, reported. Meanwhile, the Union of Employers' deputy chairman, Ivo Prokopiev, warned that the vote could damage Bulgaria's bids for NATO and EU membership. UB

Economy Minister Lidia Shuleva proposed on 24 February that the state Privatization Agency be transformed into a trading company that would concentrate on the marketing and sale of state-run companies, reported. According to Shuleva's plan, the pertinent ministries, and not the Privatization Agency, would prepare privatization deals, and thus ease the agency's workload. The new agency would be owned by the Council of Ministers and financed through commissions generated from completed deals, Shuleva said. UB


More than 2,800 delegates from all parts of Bulgaria gathered on 21 February for an extraordinary national congress of the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS). Their main aim was to put an end to a long-standing feud between SDS Chairwoman Nadezhda Mihailova and her predecessor, former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov.

Since Kostov and his supporters boycotted the congress, it was clear from the start that Mihailova would be re-elected as party chairwoman. Already on 18 February, he had told his followers that they should meet separately on 28 February, saying, "Come and we'll decide together!" which was widely regarded as a call to split from the SDS and to form a new party.

When it came to electing the party leadership, Mihailova garnered 2,438 of the votes, while only 337 delegates voted the only other candidate, Velislav Velichkov, a former leader of the SDS's youth organization.

In her keynote speech, Mihailova reminded the congress of the problems that have arisen in her relations with Kostov and as a result of her attempts to reform the party. She recalled that the SDS lost the 2001 parliamentary elections because voters had lost their confidence in the party, which at that time was led by then-Prime Minister Kostov.

Kostov came to power in spring 1997 after mass protests forced the Socialist government of Zhan Videnov to resign. But after four years in office, Kostov faced much the same accusations of nepotism, corruption, and of having links with organized crime structures that Videnov faced at the time he was ousted. Such allegations, Mihailova said, show that the SDS had violated the moral contract it had struck with the voters on the eve of its 1997 electoral victory.

Mihailova also recalled Kostov's authoritarian style of leadership, which manifested itself in 1999 when he announced a major government reshuffle without consulting with his party or his ministers. "The lack of an explanation for the replacement of ministers reinforced the doubts [in Kostov's capabilities] and irritated our sympathizers," Mihailova said.

Although Mihailova served a full term as foreign minister under Kostov, she remained untainted by Kostov's problems. After its defeat in the 2001 parliamentary elections, the party made Mihailova its chairwoman.

For about two years, the conflict between the old and the new leader simmered beyond the surface. It broke out last summer, just before the crucial local elections. In an attempt to prove that the SDS does not want to be connected by the voters with any shady business circles or pressure groups, Mihailova ordered Plamen Oresharski to withdraw his candidacy for the strategically important post of mayor of Sofia. Mihailova decided to run for Sofia mayor herself, announcing a clean-hands policy.

But then another scandal shattered the party, again over corruption charges, this time involving Kostov. A wealthy Russian businessman, Mikhail Chernoi, who was banned from entering Bulgaria on money-laundering charges in 2000, alleged that the former prime minister tried to blackmail him. Chernoi claimed Kostov's middlemen contacted him on two occasions and demanded payment to avoid state interference in the sale of his company MobilTel. Once they demanded that he pay $5 million, which he refused, and another time $200,000, which he paid. According to Chernoi, one of his Cyprus-based companies transferred the money in May 2001 to the Demokratsiya Foundation headed by Kostov.

Although Chernoi's accusations have not been supported by evidence, they clearly dealt a serious blow to Mihailova's efforts to remove the stain of corruption from the SDS. And they contributed to Mihailova's defeat in the Sofia mayoral vote.

The corruption charges against Kostov were not the only reason why he and Mihailova have repeatedly clashed over the past months. For Kostov, who is a stern proponent of the idea that the SDS must remain the only conservative party in Bulgaria, Mihailova's plan to seek coalitions with other conservative parties is out of the question. During a meeting of the SDS's National Council after the first round of the local elections, he dismissed Mihailova's plan to support Sofia Mayor Stefan Sofiyanski and his Union of Liberal Democrats in the second round. "Don't you see that [Sofiyanski] wants to take over the SDS?" Sofiyanski had left the SDS in 2001 to protest Kostov's authoritarian leadership.

At the national congress on 21 February, Mihailova defended her plan to form such a coalition with other conservative parties, including the governing National Movement Simeon II and the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). This was one of the reasons cited by Kostov and 26 other SDS legislators, when they announced on 23 February that they will leave the SDS. For Kostov, it was unacceptable that Mihailova is considering forming a coalition with the DPS, which, in his eyes, is headed by a former agent of the communist-era secret service. Kostov obviously regards this as a betrayal of his firm anticommunist beliefs. "The SDS is no longer able to defend the political ideals that I share," Kostov wrote in an open letter to the party.

While Kostov's decision to leave the SDS together with his supporters is not a serious problem for the party as such, it could pose problems for the SDS's future parliamentary work. Kostov and his followers have yet to decide whether to remain in the opposition coalition United Democratic Forces (ODS) or to form a parliamentary group of their own. But Mihailova's followers, for their part, are now reduced to a group of 13 legislators in the 240-seat parliament. Under these circumstances, they are in desperate need of coalition partners if they want to retain any influence.

Analysts predict that any new party founded by Kostov stands little chance of becoming as strong as the SDS was during its heyday. But it will certainly remain a thorn in the Bulgarian conservatives' side.

The renegade leader of Hizb-e Islami, former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has declared 2004 the "Year of War" and issued orders to his supporters to increase attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces, NATO forces, and pro-government Afghan militia, the Lahore-based "Daily Times" reported on 24 February. According to an unidentified source, Hekmatyar and former Afghan Mujahedin commander Jalaluddin Haqqani will direct the new "strategy," which is to be carried out by "militants recruited in the name of the 'Secret Army of Mujahedin,'" the source is reported to have said. The source cited by "Daily Times" reported that around 1,100 militants have been recruited and trained by Hizb-e Islami. During the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan, both Hekmatyar and Haqqani were celebrated Mujahedin leaders. AT

A speaker claming to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is second in command of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, threatened more attacks on forces of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and specifically criticized Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, Al-Jazeera TV reported on 24 February. Al-Zawahiri called Karzai "an agent of Washington" who is "defended by U.S. soldiers." He said that Al-Qaeda is "expanding and growing" and will attack U.S. targets, recalling the experiences of British and Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. AT

Al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden have moved from Pakistan into the Afghan mountains, ABC News reported on 24 February, citing unidentified U.S. intelligence officials. According to the officials, the two Al-Qaeda leaders moved out of Pakistan because of pressure being put on their sympathizers by Pakistani forces. On 17 February, U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno, who is commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said cooperation between coalition forces and Pakistan has improved recently. In what he described as "a hammer-and-anvil approach," Pakistan hopes to drive militants and terrorists out of its territory and into Afghanistan, where coalition forces and Afghan military units can confront them (see, "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004). AT

The Kabul daily "Erada" in a commentary on 23 February wrote that while the Afghan Transitional Administration is emphasizing that general elections will take place as scheduled in June (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004), there might yet be problems that could delay that process. "Erada" mentioned the increase in terrorist activities in the southern and southeastern regions of Afghanistan; slow progress in the program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate former fighters; and regional administrators or commanders who "follow the footprint of the Taliban" by imposing various restrictions on the people and rely on their militias. The commentary recalled the Constitutional Loya Jirga held in December, noting that many candidates withdrew their candidacies for fear of their lives and that "armed men made their way into the Constitutional Loya Jirga" as deputies. In conclusion, "Erada" wrote that "a truly democratic climate for future elections in the country cannot be provided until arms are collected and warlords" are rendered powerless. AT

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated on 24 February that it remains concerned about Iran's controversial nuclear program following the revelation of hitherto hidden activities, Western media reported. Iran promised in October to open its nuclear programs to international inspectors, but Israel and the United States continue to suspect Tehran is seeking the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The IAEA report states that Iran has now agreed to suspend more activities relating to uranium enrichment, Reuters reported on 24 February. But the agency does not know why Iran had not previously disclosed drawings it has of advanced uranium-enrichment technology, and past experiments to make polonium, a substance of potential use in making bombs, Reuters reported. The IAEA report also said the agency wants an explanation of the highly enriched and low-enriched uranium found at two sites in Iran, according to Reuters. The United States has threatened to take Iran's case to the UN Security Council if evidence suggests it is making nuclear bombs. VS

Iran's Foreign Ministry rejected U.S. and European criticism of recent parliamentary elections as "unacceptable" and contradictory "for a lack of information on the realities and complexities of events in Iran," the Mehr News Agency reported on 24 February. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said the elections are a domestic issue and urged critics to consider "widespread voter participation." About half the electorate, including one-third of Tehran voters, cast their ballots, the pro-reform Interior Ministry has said, although the figures are disputed. The polls, which was preceded by the controversial disqualification of reformist hopefuls by the conservative Guardians Council, have given conservatives control of the next legislature. "This is not the first time America and certain European countries, for political reasons, show their intolerance of the Iranian people's votes and lawful elections," the agency quoted Asefi as saying. U.S. President George W. Bush said he is "very disappointed" with the elections, Reuters reported on 24 February. The U.S. State Department earlier criticized the ballot as below "international standards," while a EU statement called it a setback for Iranian democracy, AFP reported on 23 February. VS

Conservatives set to enter Iran's next parliament have vowed to tackle poverty and pursue development, local media reported on 24 February. The next chamber "will pursue the general development in economic, political, social, and cultural areas," the Mehr News Agency quoted Ahmad Tavakkoli, a newly elected conservative legislator, as saying. "We shall not allow policies that ignore the poor." But a conservative majority, he said, will not mean "a curtailment of political liberties," the agency reported. Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, the candidate who received the most votes in Tehran, promised an end to factional quarrels, IRNA reported on 24 February. "We are only thinking of the country's future. Such words as revenge are not in our minds," the agency cited him as saying. "People are tired of confrontation, quarrels, and factional fighting." The next legislature will also work to improve relations with Arab and Islamic states, especially Egypt, he added. "Iran and Egypt have an optimistic view of their future political ties. We too welcome improving relations with Egypt," Haddad-Adel said. VS

A group identifying itself as the Mujahedin Brigades in Iraq has reportedly distributed leaflets at police stations in Kirkuk threatening more attacks against Iraqi police and Kurdish militias for cooperating with Americans, AP reported on 25 February. Police Colonel Adil Ibrahim said that he believes the group may have been involved in the 23 February attack on a police station in the city. Kirkuk police chief Sherko Skakir said passengers in a single car distributed the leaflets overnight, throwing them over the walls of about two-thirds of the police compounds in the city. "Anyone who supports and cooperated with the infidels will be under threat of death," the leaflets stated. They also threatened attacks on police checkpoints and warned, "We know all these (security) forces' movements." KR

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has issued a report on mass graves in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority announced in a 24 February press release ( The press release states that some 270 mass graves have been uncovered in Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime in May. "Some graves hold a few dozen bodies -- their arms lashed together and the bullet holes in the backs of skulls testimony to their execution. Other graves go on for hundreds of meters, densely packed with thousands of bodies," the release stated. The press release quoted U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair as saying that some 400,000 bodies have been discovered in mass graves, while Human Rights Watch estimated in May that as many as 290,000 Iraqis were "disappeared" by the Iraqi government over two decades. "If these numbers prove accurate, they represent a crime against humanity surpassed only by the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields in the 1970s, and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II," it added. The USAID report can be accessed from the CPA website. KR

The United Nations will send an expert team back to Iraq to begin preparations for elections next year, Reuters reported on 24 February. Carina Perelli, who heads the UN electoral unit, will head the team, which is expected to arrive in Baghdad within two weeks. The UN said on 24 February that Iraqis should establish an independent electoral commission to adopt election laws, voting registration, and undertake election planning for Iraq's 18 governorates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2004). KR

Iraqi Governing Council spokesman Hamid al-Kifa'i has said that the Transitional Administration Law remains under debate at the Iraqi Governing Council but will be ready by the 28 February deadline set by the 15 November agreement between the Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority, Baghdad's "Al-Mashriq" reported on 24 February. Al-Kifa'i said that the law, seen as a precursor to Iraq's constitution, will remain in effect for an 18-month transitional period until a permanent constitution is ratified by an elected government. He added that versions of the Transitional Administration Law being published in Iraqi newspapers are only draft versions. KR

Abbas al-Asadi, an official with the Islamic Accord Movement, told London's "Al-Hayat" that Sunni and Shi'a religious parties have agreed to take practical steps to unify their positions in an effort to prevent sectarian strife in Iraq, the daily reported on 24 February. He added that one of the steps includes plans for a conference that will include all political Sunni and Shi'ite authorities in Iraq. Mosque and shrine sermons will also work to promote the idea of "one Islam in Iraq." Al-Asadi accused unidentified foreign elements of sowing sedition in Iraq. He also rejected claims by some Iraqis that the United States is behind recent terrorist incidents in Iraq, saying: "These forces are offering daily sacrifices and are suffering because of these terrorist acts." KR

Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz told the MTI news agency on 24 February that Hungary might extend its military presence in Iraq for an additional year if stabilization efforts continue at their current slow pace, AFP reported. Juhasz noted that such a decision would require parliamentary approval. Juhasz's comments came following a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Hungary George Herbert Walker. Three hundred Hungarian troops, mostly logistics experts, have been serving in Iraq under Polish command since last September. Ten Hungarian soldiers were wounded last week in a terrorist attack in Al-Hillah, some 100 kilometers south of Baghdad. MS

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase on 24 February visited Romanian troops serving in Iraq and held talks with the allied commanders of the three international contingents in which the 1,500 Romanian soldiers are serving, a government press release announced. Nastase met in Al-Basrah with Major General Andrew Steward, commander of the International Division South East, in Al-Nasiriyah with Brigadier General Marco Chiarini, commander of the Joint Italian Forces, and in Babylon with Polish General Mieczislaw Bicniek, under whose command a Romanian engineering unit is serving in Al-Hillah. All three commanders highly praised the combat readiness and the military know-how of the Romanian soldiers. Nastase also decorated the combat banner of Infantry Battalion 26 -- nicknamed the Red Scorpions-- for outstanding merits accumulated in peacekeeping missions in Angola, Albania, Kosova, and Afghanistan. MS