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Newsline - March 16, 2004

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 15 March, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged criticism by leading U.S. politicians about the state of democracy in Russia, but linked such statements to the ongoing political campaign in the United States, ORT and RTR reported. "Of course, we listen to critical statements, analyze them, take them into consideration and, if necessary, draw conclusions," Putin said. "But even countries with so-called developed democracies have many problems with democracy, including with the election process. Four years ago we were bewildered to watch as the U.S. election system malfunctioned." "In general, it is useful if we draw attention to one another's shortcomings," Putin concluded. VY

Writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 15 March, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow said that U.S. President George W. Bush, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice have repeatedly expressed their concerns about the direction in which Russian democracy is moving. "Those Russian politicians who believe that this is election-year rhetoric with no relation to real politics are making a grave mistake," Vershbow wrote. He added that Russian politicians should abandon the obsolete notion that the territory of the former Soviet Union is a "zone of exclusive Russian interests." He said that both Russia and the United States have common interests in boosting stability and democratic reforms in the region. VY

In a 15 March press release posted on the organization's website (, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the 14 March presidential election, while "well administered," lacked elements of "a genuine democratic contest. The release quoted Ambassador Christian Strohal, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, as saying: "Candidates were provided with the opportunity to present their messages to voters. This was, however, devalued by the state-controlled media displaying clear bias in favor of the incumbent." Rudolf Bindig, head of the monitoring delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), noted that while ballot counting went smoothly at most polling stations observed, significant problems were reported in one-quarter of counts monitored. JAC

According to a press release posted on the website of the Russian NGO Golos (, the organization found that "for the first time, many of [its] election observers faced open hostility while trying to do their work." Golos fielded some 500 election observers, compared to 340 from the OSCE. Golos also reported that Russia's voter rolls shrunk "without explanation by 2 million people" between the 7 December State Duma elections and the presidential race. The NGO received complaints from around the country from individuals who arrived to vote only to be told that their names had been removed from the voter list. The CIS also sent 233 observers, and their 15 March preliminary conclusions declared that the elections were "free, democratic, and fair." The Prosecutor-General's Office issued a statement the same day saying that it had not found any serious violations during the voting, ITAR-TASS reported. JAC

Speaking to reporters in Moscow on 15 March, Russian Union of Journalists General Secretary and former State Duma Deputy Igor Yakovenko said "if the previous presidential election can be called unfair, then the present one cannot be called an election at all," and reported. "There was no competition among candidates and their ideas," Yakovenko said. "It was just a struggle of financial and administrative resources." He noted that there were cases of direct censorship, such as when state-controlled media outlet banned the campaign advertisements of candidate Ivan Rybkin and when materials supporting candidate Sergei Glazev were removed from ORT on 24 and 25 February. VY

U.S. President Bush on 15 March telephoned President Putin to congratulate him on his victory in the 14 March presidential election, Russian and Western media reported. Putin was also congratulated by Chinese President Hu Jintao, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and officials from the European Union. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told Putin that he hopes for further positive developments in bilateral relations and the two presidents discussed the crisis in Adjaria. VY

A huge fire on the night of 14-15 March destroyed the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in downtown Moscow and killed two firefighters, Russian media reported. The 19th-century building was located next to the Kremlin wall, and the flames could be seen from the Kremlin as the votes from the 14 March presidential election were being tallied. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov rushed to the scene of the disaster. By midnight, despite the efforts of several dozen firefighting units, the building was completely gutted and its roof and some walls had collapsed. Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov speculated on 15 March that the incident might have been some sort of provocation, reported. But Luzhkov said on 15 March that investigators have eliminated terrorism and arson as possible explanations and were concentrating on the theory that the blaze was caused by an electrical short circuit, Russian media reported. He added that the 1817 landmark building, which was built to mark Russia's victory over Napoleon, will be completely restored, with a commercial parking lot, a casino, and a shopping area added below ground. VY

According to a press release from Menatep, the financial arm of embattled oil giant Yukos, the $5 billion frozen in Swiss bank accounts earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2004) does not belong to Yukos shareholders but to the company's pension fund, Interfax reported on 12 March. According to Menatep, the accounts are controlled by Veteran Petroleum Trust Company on behalf of the company's 40,000 employees. An unidentified spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office told on 12 March that his office does not intend "to debate with Yukos the origin of the money." "We believe the [Menatep] press release is an attempt to push prosecutors into a debate on fictitious and insignificant details," the spokesman said. "We believe the frozen funds are in personal accounts of Yukos shareholders." VY

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 15 March that voter turnout for the 14 March election was uneven across Russia. In some areas, turnout was extremely high. In Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, 83.2 percent of registered voters participated. In Bashkortostan, the figure was 89.3; in the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, 79.9 percent, according to Regnum. Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya had turnouts above 94 percent. However, in Irkutsk, only 44.7 percent of eligible voters had voted as of 6 p.m. on 14 March, despite cars with loudspeakers cruising city neighborhoods to remind people to vote. In an interview with on 15 March, Center for Political Technologies Deputy Director Aleksei Makarkin commented that turnout was extremely impressive in the regions with the strongest authoritarian rule and also in regions "that are not very well developed in terms of population and the economy." In major urban centers, the voting level was much lower. In the city of Krasnoyarsk, for example, turnout was 47.77 percent, according to RosBalt. JAC

In an analysis published by on 15 March, commentator Vitalii Leibin wrote that while the so-called Red Belt disappeared in the 1999 State Duma elections, a new kind of "gray belt" has appeared on Russia's newly reconfigured political map. In the gray belt, which comprises the majority of regions, local elites know their place and are capable of showing initiative to support the Kremlin's wishes. In another, smaller area, local authorities were either unwilling or unable to drive the people en masse to the polling stations. In this area, voter turnout in 2004 hovered around 50 percent of registered voters or less. Leibin includes Krasnoyarsk Krai in the latter group, although Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Khlopinin is emphatically loyal to President Putin's regime. JAC

Prime Minister Fradkov has appointed former Deputy Energy Minister Sergei Novikov to head the new Federal Tariff Service, Russian media reported on 15 March. Novikov worked as finance director for Yukos in 1994-96. He most recently served as first deputy to presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko, ITAR-TASS reported. Also on 15 March, Fradkov appointed St. Petersburg Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet Rector Leonid Nadirov as first deputy culture and mass communications minister. Former State Duma Deputy Aleksei Golovkov was appointed as deputy to government chief of staff Dmitrii Kozak. Golovkov was a member of Russia's Choice and Our Home is Russia. JAC

Prime Minister Fradkov on 13 March appointed FSB First Deputy Director Yurii Zaostrovstev as first deputy chairman of Vneshtorgbank, reported. At the FSB, Zaostrovstev headed the Economic Security Department and has been considered one of the prime movers behind the campaign against the oligarchs. VY

Contrary to preliminary election results, two-term Ryazan Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Lyubimov failed to qualify for a second round of voting in the region's gubernatorial elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2004). According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 16 March, Lyubimov received only 21.12 percent of the vote. State Duma Deputy Igor Morozov (Unified Russia), who was supported by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, won the race with 28.96 percent, while State Duma Deputy Georgii Shpak (Motherland) came in second with 23.73 percent. Morozov was elected to the State Duma in December from a single-mandate district in Ryazan. He is a veteran intelligence officer who worked in Iraq. Lyubimov is considered a nominal communist with ties to the Tyumen Oil Company (TNK). Shpak is a former commander of the Airborne Forces. JAC

In one of the three 14 March repeat elections for State Duma seats, the option "against all" again proved more popular than any of the candidates, Russian media reported. In Ulyanovsk, more than 21 percent of voters opted for "against all," compared with just 13 percent for former Ulyanovsk Governor Yurii Goryachev, reported. In St. Petersburg, city legislator Aleksandr Morozov won the Duma seat with 23.11 percent, while former St. Petersburg Deputy Governor and gubernatorial candidate Anna Markova came in second with 17.94 percent, according to In Sverdlovsk Oblast, Yevgenii Zyablintsev won with 31.8 percent of the vote, compared to 23.8 percent for "against all." Zyablintsev represented the district in the previous Duma as a member of the People's Deputy group. JAC

Under an agreement signed in Yerevan on 15 March by Armenian Finance and Economy Minister Vartan Khachatrian and EU representative Torben Holtze, the EU will provide Armenia with 20 million euros ($25 million) over the next three years, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Part of that sum will finance measures required for the eventual closure of the Medzamor nuclear-power plant. The remainder will be spent on bringing Armenian legislation into line with European standards and improving local-government efficiency. Holtze reiterated the EU's earlier pleas to decommission Medzamor, offering 100 million euros as an inducement to set a concrete date for doing so, AFP reported. But Khachatrian repeated that the Armenian government cannot close Medzamor, which provides up to 40 percent of the country's electricity, until alternative energy sources are available. He also again rejected European concerns that the Medzamor reactor constitutes a major security risk. LF

Azerbaijan's Court for Grave Crimes passed sentence on 15 March on a further eight persons convicted in connection with the clashes in Baku between police and opposition supporters in the wake of the disputed 15 October presidential ballot, Turan reported. Four of the accused were released on probation, while the remaining four received prison sentences of between four and five years. To date, 17 people have been jailed in connection with the postelection violence, and 30 put on probation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). LF

Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze told Russian journalists in Batumi on 15 March that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili should not have given him 24 hours to comply with a series of demands, ITAR-TASS reported. On 14 March, Saakashvili demanded, among other things, that Abashidze permit him and other members of the Georgian leadership to enter Adjar territory, pledge to ensure that voting in the 28 March parliamentary ballot will be free and fair, and disarm an illegal paramilitary formation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2004). Abashidze said ultimatums are inappropriate when dealing with one's own citizens, and that as president, Saakashvili should have set an example of how to behave. At the same time, Abashidze again affirmed his readiness to meet with Saakashvili to discuss resolving the tensions between them in accordance with the law, Caucasus Press reported. Abashidze said Saakashvili is free to come to Adjaria, but accompanied by only two or three armed bodyguards, not an armed entourage of several hundred. LF

Even before the expiration late on 15 March local time of his 14 March ultimatum to Adjar leader Abashidze, President Saakashvili issued orders to close the airport in Batumi and the border crossing to Turkey at Sarp, and to inspect all cargo entering Adjaria via the port of Batumi, Russian and Georgian media reported. Saakashvili said the latter measures are necessary in order to prevent arms being supplied to Abashidze's loyalists, Reuters reported. Saakashvili appealed to the Turkish leadership to close the Sarp border crossing. Also on 15 March, Saakashvili rejected as "a dirty lie" reports that he intends to abolish Adjaria's autonomous status, Interfax reported. He hinted that the blockade could be lifted after the 28 March parliamentary election. LF

U.S. Ambassador to Tbilisi Richard Miles and OSCE Chairman in Office and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi flew on 15 March to the Black Sea port of Poti, some 30 kilometers north of the internal border with Adjaria, for talks with President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who established an "crisis headquarters" in Poti on 14 March, Georgian and Western media reported. Pasi subsequently said Saakashvili assured him that Tbilisi will not resort to force against Adjaria. Pasi also said he urged Abashidze in a telephone conversation to agree to meet with Georgian representatives to discuss defusing the crisis, and that Abashidze's response to his suggestion inclined him to believe that the two sides could resolve their problems through peaceful dialogue, Russian media reported. Miles for his part said that the United States will not intervene in what he termed a Georgian domestic political issue. LF

Prime Minister Zhvania told journalists in Poti on 15 March, however, that when he telephoned Abashidze that day to propose talks, Abashidze refused, Caucasus Press reported. Zhvania also said the crisis threatens to disrupt the export via Batumi of Kazakh oil, as the Adjar leadership has given orders to dismantle the railway leading to Batumi. Turan, however, on 16 March quoted Khoshbakht Yusifzade, vice president of Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR, as saying that Azerbaijan's oil exports will not be affected by the Adjar crisis as 80 percent of exports are shipped by sea from Poti and only some 20 percent from Batumi. Last year some 700,000-800,000 tons of Kazakh and Turkmen crude were exported via Batumi. LF

Adjar Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze told Interfax on 15 March that 3,000 Georgian troops backed by 12 tanks are poised to invade the autonomous republic, but that Adjar forces are capable of repelling any such aggression. Georgian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Nino Sturua told the same agency the same day that while some army units are on alert, none has been deployed to the border with Adjaria. Georgian State Security Minister Zurab Adeishvili claimed in Poti on 15 March that over the past three years Abashidze has created three special-forces units manned by former criminals with an estimated total strength of more than 1,000 men, Interfax reported. Abashidze himself said on 15 March that the Adjar authorities have begun issuing weapons to the population in order not to leave women and children unprotected, Interfax reported. Interfax further reported that Adjar militia forces armed with automatic rifles are grouping close to the internal border with Georgia. Gogitidze on 16 March estimated the number of Adjar militia deployed at the border at 400 men, backed by several armored personnel carriers. Caucasus Press on 16 March reported that the Adjar volunteer militia opened fire twice during the night when Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze approached the border at two separate locations. LF

Yurii Luzhkov flew to Trabzon on 16 March and then traveled via Sarp to Batumi "in order to support my friend Aslan Abashidze at this difficult moment," Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, the population of Batumi has begun withdrawing money from bank accounts and panic-buying food in anticipation of a protracted blockade, Caucasus Press reported on 16 March. An unspecified number are trying to leave Adjaria for elsewhere in Georgia. LF

EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten arrived in Kazakhstan on 15 March at the start of a five-day trip during which he will also visit Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, Kazinform reported the same day. Patten's trip will focus on "bilateral relations, the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, and the need to accelerate the process of political and economic reforms," according to a 12 March EU statement. Patten struck a note of cautious criticism in his initial remarks in Kazakhstan, warning political and business leaders that "torture and other human rights violations, the restriction of fundamental freedoms...[are] precisely the conditions that breed and nurture the hate and grievance that underlie terrorism," AFP reported on 15 March. Kazakhstan received 135 million euros ($165 million) in EU aid from 1991-2001, RFE/RL reported on 15 March. Patten's tour, the highest-level EU attention the region has received since 1996, will bypass Turkmenistan, which has increasingly shunned international dialogue. DK

A joint session of parliament passed a bill on 15 March amending the country's constitutional law on elections, Kazinform reported the same day. The bill passed in its third reading with 58 votes in the 77-seat Majilis, the lower house of parliament, and 32 votes in the 39-seat Senate. The bill, which has been the focus of intense debate and now awaits President Nursultan Nazarbaev's signature, would introduce transparent ballot boxes and change the way regional electoral commissions are formed. DK

The number killed as a result of the 14 March mudslide in a village outside Almaty now stands at 28, including nine Chinese citizens, Xinhua news agency reported on 15 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2004). The Chinese citizens were apparently killed when the slide destroyed an apartment building that housed employees of the China National Petroleum Corporation, according to the news agency. The dead include 15 women and six children, and 20 people are still missing, according to Xinhua. The mud slides occurred following several days of heavy rain. DK

A delegation from Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Assembly arrived in Iran on 15 March for an official visit, Kyrgyz Radio reported the same day. The delegation, led by assembly speaker Abdygany Erkebaev, met with Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami to discuss bilateral relations and regional cooperation. Noting that "the countries of our region have suffered from terrorism, wars, and various conflicts," Khatami expressed the hope that increased stability in Afghanistan will allow for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country, reported. IRNA also quoted Khatami as stressing the need for concerted efforts to combat the growing role of drug trafficking in the region. For his part, Erkebaev underscored the need to "develop and deepen cooperation" between Iran and Kyrgyzstan, reported. DK

Tajik authorities arrested an Uzbek citizen in Dushanbe on 13 March for possession of 3 grams of factory-grade plutonium, AFP reported on 15 March. The officials claimed the man intended to sell the plutonium to individuals in Afghanistan or Pakistan for $21,000, or $7,000 per gram. The discovered plutonium was stored in a special capsule apparently used by the factory where it was produced, and the capsule was intact and was not emitting unusual levels of radiation, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 15 March. ITAR-TASS quoted Tajik experts as saying that neither Uzbekistan nor Tajikistan produced the plutonium, which may have been of "Russian or Kazakh" origin. They said the plutonium would not be suitable for weapons production, but could be used in "instrument manufacturing." DK

United Civic Party Deputy Chairman Yaraslau Ramanchuk told Belapan on 15 March that he expects Belarusian-Russian relations to deteriorate following the re-election of Russian President Vladimir Putin because Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka "has irrevocably spoiled relations with Moscow." Mikalay Statkevich, head of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Popular Assembly), said Russia will aspire to the domination of the Belarusian economy and the political incorporation of Belarus. Syarhey Kalyakin, chairman of the Belarusian Party of Communists, told the agency that Lukashenka should now not expect "gratuitous assistance from Russia anymore." Syarhey Skrabets, leader of the defiant Respublika group in the Lukashenka-controlled Chamber of Representatives, also opined that the "distance" between the two countries will continue to increase during Putin's second term, noting that the recent Belarus-Russia dispute over gas deliveries (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 2 March 2004) provides clear evidence of this trend. "But this might be a blessing in disguise, because Belarus will now have to depend on its own resources, not Russian subsidies," Skrabets added. JM

President Leonid Kuchma has instructed the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, the State Tax Administration, and the Emergency Situations Ministry to impose a moratorium on audits and financial inspections among media enterprises during the upcoming presidential-election campaign in Ukraine, UNIAN reported on 16 March. Kuchma reportedly took the step following a request by the Ukrainian Association of Network Broadcasting. Earlier this month, the Verkhovna Rada voted down a resolution sponsored by opposition deputies that sought to call on the cabinet to ensure the unobstructed functioning of the media during the 2004 election campaign, including the introduction of a moratorium on media checks by authorities. JM

Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko called on the Verkhovna Rada on 16 March to pass a bill on the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Iraq, UNIAN reported. Referring to last week's terrorist attacks in Madrid, Symonenko argued that such a bill is necessary to end the "state of war" that Ukraine is in and to prevent any possible terrorist retaliation against Ukraine. A similar appeal to the Verkhovna Rada was made by Socialist Party lawmaker Yuriy Lutsenko. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who spoke in parliament the same day, said he is "displeased" with the presence of Ukrainian soldiers in Iraq but evaded an unambiguous declaration over whether he would support their pullout from that country. Ukraine sent some 1,600 troops to the Polish-led international division in Iraq. JM

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko (1996-97) went on trial in a San Francisco court on 15 March on charges that he laundered upwards of $114 million of illicit funds through U.S. banks, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. Lazarenko, who was arrested in the United States in February 1999, faces 53 counts of alleged wrongdoing in a U.S. federal indictment. Following his detention in the United States, Lazarenko was convicted in absentia for money laundering in Switzerland and charged with murder in Ukraine. Lazarenko's attorneys contend their client got rich in the 1990s thanks to his intelligence and knowledge while observing the legal rules of the game. Lazarenko's path to wealth included selling commodities obtained at fixed state prices at a profit, taking low-interest loans in a period of high inflation, and acquiring companies through cheap privatization vouchers. JM

Supreme Allied Commander Europe General James Jones arrived in Estonia on 15 March for a two-day visit, BNS reported. In his talks with Prime Minister Juhan Parts, Jones stressed that the terms "old" and "new" NATO states have no relevance. "I assure you that no member country is in a preferred state," he said. "Article 5 [of the North Atlantic Treaty] applies to all those [currently] in the alliance as well as to the acceding countries." Parts said Estonia will continue to allocate at least 2 percent of GDP for defense and said NATO membership will give Estonia greater security than it has ever had. Defense Minister Margus Hanson told Jones about plans to reform the Estonian defense forces, which focus in the medium term on the creation of mobile and sustainable armed forces. The two also discussed problems related to Estonia's air defense. Jones met the same day with the commander of the Estonian defense forces, Vice Admiral Tarmo Kouts, chief of staff of the General Staff Colonel Alar Laneman, and other military officials. Jones is scheduled to visit the Amari Air Sovereignty Center on 16 March. SG

Representatives of the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), Latvia's First Party (LPP), and the People's Party signed their new coalition agreement on 15 March, BNS reported. The coalition council consists of Prime Minister Indulis Emsis and two ZZS representatives, and three representatives each from the LPP and the People's Party. The agreement regulates the rights and privileges of coalition members' parliament factions and the prime minister. SG

The board of Lithuania's parliament decided on 15 March to allow the legislative body to vote on whether an ad hoc commission should be formed to determine if impeachment proceedings should be launched against parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. President Rolandas Paksas on 12 March requested that parliament launch impeachment hearings on the grounds that Paulauskas violated the constitution and his parliamentary oath by "consciously revealing a state secret to unauthorized persons" in October when he informed the heads of parliament factions about a State Security Department report. The report, which alleged that Paksas had ties to Russian criminal groups, eventually led to impeachment charges against the president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October 2003). Ruling Social Liberal faction head and parliament Deputy Chairman Alvydas Ramanauskas on 15 March asked parliament to postpone a decision on forming a commission, arguing that it should first ask the Constitutional Court to decide whether Paksas can legally file impeachment charges against another official while he himself is undergoing impeachment proceedings. Parliament First Deputy Chairman Social Democrat Ceslovas Jursenas criticized the president for not providing any evidence to back up his charges against Paulauskas. SG

Prime Minister Leszek Miller said on 15 March that Poland will maintain its contingent of 2,400 troops in Iraq, Polish media reported. Miller was reacting to the suggestion earlier the same day by Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that Madrid will pull its 1,300 soldiers out of the 9,000-strong Polish-led division in Iraq by 30 June in the absence of a UN mandate. Miller said such a pullout could be perceived as weakness in the face of terror following last week's bomb attacks in Madrid. President Aleksander Kwasniewski said on 16 March that if Spain decides to withdraw its troops from Iraq, Poland will not send more soldiers to fill the gap. "We are working according to a plan, and we cannot change it from day to day and send troops. We don't have them prepared, to be honest," PAP quoted Kwasniewski as saying. Meanwhile, the right-wing opposition League of Polish Families has announced that it will soon submit a draft bill to the Sejm on holding a referendum simultaneously with elections for the European Parliament in June on Poland's military presence in Iraq. JM

A host of senior Czech officials and other politicians said on 15 March that they are not considering a withdrawal of Czech soldiers from Iraq in the wake of the 11 March bombings in Madrid, CTK and local dailies reported. "I would not think of such an alternative because I am sure that it is in Europe's interest to stabilize the situation in Iraq. Our participation helps the affair," Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said, according to CTK. Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and Interior Minister Stanislav Gross echoed Spidla's statement. Gross questioned whether the new Spanish government's vow to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq would not send the wrong signals to terrorist groups. The shadow defense minister for the opposition Civic Democratic Party, Petr Necas, said he believes a withdrawal of troops would represent a victory for terrorists. Senior members of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia were virtually alone in praising the Spanish Socialists' warning of a troop withdrawal from Iraq, according to local media. The Czech Republic has deployed dozens of military-police officers to Iraq, has peacekeepers in Kosova, and is currently dispatching troops to Afghanistan. AH

The leader of the Smer (Direction) party threw his party's support behind former parliamentary speaker Ivan Gasparovic's bid for the presidency on 15 March, TASR reported the same day. The left-wing Smer has led recent popularity polls and, like Gasparovic, has in the past had stormy relations with another presidential candidate, former Prime Minister and Movement for a Democratic Slovakia Chairman Vladimir Meciar. Gasparovic is chairman of the extraparliamentary Movement for Democracy (HZD), which he established in 2002, and is running third or fourth in most recent opinion surveys. Also on 15 March, junior coalition Alliance for a New Citizen's candidate Lubo Roman confirmed that he is withdrawing from the race and will back the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union's candidate, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, TASR reported. Other candidates are incumbent President Rudolf Schuster and Frantisek Miklosko of the Christian Democratic Movement. The first round of presidential balloting is slated for 3 April. AH

Customs authorities on the Slovak-Austrian border detained two Slovak nationals on 14 March after they were found to be transporting classified military information in electronic and document form bound for United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), CTK reported. The documents reportedly included blueprints of an armored personnel carrier, and the detainees are said to have been employees of a firm that specializes in the development and production of military equipment. AH

Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's planned speech in front of the parliament building on 15 March to commemorate the 1848 Hungarian revolution against the Habsburg monarchy was canceled amid organizers' fears that it would be interrupted by right-wing protesters, government spokesman Zoltan Gal told RTL Klub television the same day. Education Minister Balint Magyar meanwhile told a gathering in front of the National Museum that 15 March should remind the public that "it is good to be Hungarian, and it is even better to be a free Hungarian," "Nepszabadsag" reported. Opposition FIDESZ parliamentary group leader Janos Ader, speaking at a ceremony at Buda Castle, told supporters "to dare to be brave." FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban told a gathering in Miskolc, "It is not we who are going to the European Union, but it is the EU that is coming to us, and it will not solve our problems," "Magyar Nemzet" reported on 16 March. For his part, Istvan Csurka, chairman of the extremist Hungarian Justice and Life Party, called on his supporters in Budapest's Heroes Square to launch a wave of civil disobedience by not watching certain commercial television channels and by refusing to shop in supermarkets owned by multinationals. MSZ

The EU wants full control over international peacekeeping in Bosnia once NATO's mission there ends later in 2004, as will probably be announced at the alliance's June Istanbul summit, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported from Brussels on 16 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 10 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 March 2004). The EU is reportedly willing to allow a NATO Sarajevo office to train the Bosnian military, as is the case in Macedonia. But the EU opposes a U.S. demand that the alliance remain responsible for dealing with terrorism and indicted war criminals in Bosnia, the daily added. Germany and France reportedly oppose what they call NATO "parallel structures" in Bosnia for "military and political reasons," calling instead for a "clear demarcation" of roles between the EU and NATO. According to the Frankfurt daily, unnamed U.K. officials do not share the views of their colleagues from Paris and Berlin, arguing that the EU and NATO can work side by side. Supporters of the Franco-German position note that the EU can be active in civilian as well as military fields, adding that the EU needs opportunities to show that it can deal with European problems. The Bosnian authorities have requested a continued U.S. military presence. PM

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crime Issues Pierre-Richard Prosper told the VOA's Serbian Service on 15 March that the Hague-based war crimes tribunal will not close down until it has tried the major indicted war criminals, dpa reported. He argued that "people like [former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan] Karadzic, [former Bosnian Serb commander General Ratko] Mladic, and [former Croatian General Ante] Gotovina need to understand that, as long as they remain at large, a decision will have to be made to extend the work of [the tribunal]." Prosper also called on the three men to turn themselves in for the benefit of their own respective peoples. Noting that he believes that Mladic is in Serbia, Prosper said the Serbian authorities have a responsibility to arrest him, adding that the United States can provide unspecified "logistical and technical support." Prosper recently expressed concern at the new Serbian government's attitude on cooperation with the tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January and 20 February 2004). Several previous reports suggested that Washington wanted the tribunal to wrap up its work because it allegedly proved too costly. PM

High Representative Paddy Ashdown formally abolished Mostar's six administrative districts in 15 March, declaring the long-divided city united, regional and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 29 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 September 2003). A new city council is scheduled to be elected in October. PM

Bosnian Serb Nikola Radovanovic became the first head of a united Bosnian Defense Ministry after the parliament approved his nomination on 15 March, regional and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 11 March 2004). His deputies are Marina Pendes, a Croat, and Enes Becirbasic, a Muslim. Establishing a unified military with a single defense minister is one of the prerequisites Bosnia must meet if it wants to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program at the Atlantic alliance's June Istanbul summit. PM

Speaking in Sarajevo on 15 March, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said "the new Serbian government is democratic, reform-minded, and pro-European," Hina reported. He stressed that the government will promote regional cooperation, denying that there are any major policy differences between him and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on the matter. Labus added that the two men will work to "strengthen" the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro. He pledged that Serbia will arrest General Mladic if he is indeed in Serbia. "All our intelligence services have been ordered to check if Ratko Mladic is in Serbia. If he really is, there will be no obstacles to implementing the law," Labus added. Serbian officials have repeatedly denied that the general is on their territory, as chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, other officials of the Hague-based tribunal, and some Western officials have charged. PM

Macedonia's hawkish former Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), who will run as an independent candidate, and Arben Xhaferi, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), will run in the 14 April presidential elections, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 16 March. Both Boskovski and Xhaferi have reportedly gathered the necessary 10,000 signatures supporting their respective candidacies. The VMRO-DPMNE nominated Sasko Kedev on 15 March. The governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) nominated its secretary-general, Gezim Ostreni, for the presidency despite its previous announcement that it will support the governing Social Democratic Union's (SDSM) candidate. The opposition ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD) announced that it will support Ostreni. Three minor candidates have also announced they will run for president: Branko Janevski of the small Social Democratic Party of Macedonia, former PDSH legislator Sali Ramadani, and one Mirko Hristov. The SDSM is expected to decide on its candidate on 17 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 9, and 10 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February and 5 March 2004). UB

The opposition Democratic Party at a rally in Bucharest on 15 March announced its approximately 3,000 candidates for the June local elections, Mediafax reported. The campaign, using the slogan "First-time order," will mainly target representatives of the ruling Social Democratic Party. It was announced that Democratic Party Chairman and Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu will run for a second term. Basescu and Democratic Party Executive Chairman Emil Boc, who will run against Cluj Mayor Gheorghe Funar, are candidates of the recently formed Democratic Party-National Liberal Party alliance. ZsM

Thousands of Romania's ethnic Hungarians on 15 March assembled throughout Transylvania to commemorate the 1848-49 Hungarian revolution and war of independence, Romanian media reported. In Cluj, Romanian nationalist Mayor Funar's annual counterdemonstration to honor the Romanian victims of the revolution went off without incident. Meanwhile, the Romanian Legislative Council on 15 March rejected a proposed bill on granting autonomy to the lands occupied by Szeklers, Transylvania's Hungarian minority, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February and 12 March 2004). The Legislative Council argued that the proposed bill is unconstitutional and contravenes EU and international law. The proposal was recently submitted by six Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) deputies, although the UDMR has distanced itself from the initiative. ZsM

President Georgi Parvanov on 15 March said that Bulgarian security should be stepped up following the 11 March bombings in Madrid, "Sega" reported. Asked whether Bulgaria should withdraw its military contingent from Iraq considering that countries participating in Iraq face greater risk of terrorist attack, Parvanov said: "I am aware of the risks that exist for our battalion, I am aware of the fact that our participation in the global antiterrorist coalition bears risks, but this means that we [must adopt stricter measures] guaranteeing the security of our battalion and our citizens." Assuring the public that there is no need to panic, Parvanov said security measures should constantly be improved, as terrorists do not follow conventional standards of war and are themselves seeking to surprise with new methods of attack. Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski has ordered the government's Security Council to meet on 17 March to discuss the possible consequences the Madrid attacks will have on Bulgarian security, reported. UB

A court in Benghazi, Libya, on 15 March again postponed what was to be the final hearing in the trial of six Bulgarian medics charged with deliberately infecting more than 400 children with HIV/AIDS in a Benghazi hospital in 1999, reported (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2004). The court will convene again on 5 April. UB

Russian President Vladimir Putin's 14 March election victory was a model of an efficiently controlled, stage-managed campaign. There were few surprises generally, and none for the triumphant incumbent. The president's domination of virtually all actors in the political process -- the Duma, the Central Election Commission (TsIK), the media, local administrations, etc. -- produced a race that could be charitably described as "civilized," although opposition politicians would no doubt use another term. In many ways, it was the Kremlin's total control of the media that brought the whole show off so smoothly.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 8 March issued a report that concluded baldly that state-controlled national television -- overwhelmingly the public's main source of national news -- devoted far more airtime to Putin than to any other candidate. "On the state-funded TV channels [Putin] has received coverage far beyond that which was reasonably proportionate to his role as head of state," the OSCE wrote. According to the organization's monitoring, for instance, ORT gave Putin two hours and 38 minutes of "overwhelmingly positive" coverage during the first two weeks of the official campaign period. "All other candidates combined received a total of only 22 minutes," the report stated. "The other two state-funded TV channels adopted a similar approach."

The report noted in passing that, as in past election campaigns, the underfunded and vulnerable regional media "have given very little news coverage to the candidates' campaign activities." One bright exception to this general observation emerged on 9 March, when reported that the independent Afontovo television channel in Krasnoyarsk -- long one of the best regional media companies in Russia -- had broadcast footage of local administration officials arranging for local teachers to vote early in the presidential election. Although it is unlikely this scandal will amount to anything, it was a strikingly bold piece of reporting. During the 1996 and 2000 presidential races, media observers noted that most regional media outlets, out of fear of reprisals, published their reports of campaign violations only after the voting, if at all.

Control of the media greatly facilitated Putin's main campaign tactics, such as refusing to campaign or to participate in televised campaign debates. "The deficit in the campaign environment created by the other candidates' lack of opportunity to address questions and comments to the incumbent president on his performance in office is compounded by the general absence of a critical mass media posing such questions in its reporting," the OSCE wrote.

State-media control also assisted Putin when he decided on 24 February to dismiss the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. For the two weeks leading up to the 14 March ballot, much media attention was diverted from the campaign. Moreover, the Kremlin's grip on the media and the Duma ensured that the government shakeup was portrayed as calm, reasoned leadership rather than as a crisis, as the frequent cabinet dismissals of former President Boris Yeltsin were routinely depicted.

Media control has also allowed the Kremlin to block out any news that would reflect badly on Putin. In a 25 February story headlined "Chechnya Wound Kept Under Wraps For Putin's Big Day," dpa reported that government control of foreign and domestic correspondents working in the conflict zone has been stepped up. Those accredited to work there "are shepherded on tours that are supposed to show deep stabilization in the region. They are told to focus on "Chechnya's social and economic rejuvenation under Moscow's supervision."

Another monitoring report was issued by the Russian Union of Journalists on 2 March and largely confirmed the OSCE findings. The union found that media outlets -- both print and broadcast -- devoted from 57 to 100 percent of their campaign coverage to Putin. Moreover, it did not find any substantial difference between state-controlled and private media. Overall, the union's study -- which was funded by the European Commission -- found that national television devoted 63 percent of its coverage in the first week of the campaign to Putin, with the remaining 37 percent split fairly evenly among the other candidates, except for former State Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin. According to this report, Rybkin received no coverage at all prior to his strange misadventure in Kyiv.

In national newspapers, the Union of Journalists reported, Putin got 70 percent of the coverage. The daily "Trud," which was purchased by Promsvyazbank in August, devoted 95 percent of its coverage to Putin. When the bank, which also owns a controlling interest in "Argumenty i fakty," bought the paper, analysts predicted that its long-standing leftist orientation would shift toward the Kremlin, and, indeed, "Trud" has ironically devoted only 1 percent of its election coverage to Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov. The popular tabloid-like daily "Komsomolskaya pravda," which is owned by oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Interros group, gave Putin 67 percent of its attention, putting it on a par with the government mouthpiece "Rossiiskaya gazeta."

State-controlled regional media such as "Nizhegorodskaya pravda" devoted 100 percent of their coverage to Putin. It is probably not coincidental that candidates Irina Khakamada and Sergei Glazev both reported that their efforts to campaign in Nizhnii Novgorod met open resistance from local authorities.

During the week before the vote, Glazev laid out his positions in a half-hour, one-on-one interview with the BBC's "HARDtalk" program. None of the presidential candidates had a similar opportunity to address voters on any of the Russian television channels.

Clearly, the path to Putin's seemingly inevitable re-election was considerably greased by a controlled and subservient media sector. Interestingly, however, it does not seem likely that the decidedly undemocratic nature of the election will cast any doubt on the legitimacy of Putin's re-election. On the contrary, the political elite and the public as well will likely see the process as the confirmation of a system that seems to be working. And this will make it that much easier for Putin to anoint his own successor in 2008.

Four civilians have been killed in the Daikondi District of the central Afghan Oruzgan Province as a result of a clash between rival commanders of the Shi'ite Hizb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan party, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on 15 March. According to an unidentified former delegate to the Constitutional Loya Jirga from Daikondi, the two commanders have long harbored mutual animosity. Bakhtar reported that the same source claimed many residents of Daikondi have been forced to migrate to foreign countries to flee the persistent fighting. Hizb-e Wahdat is the main party representing Afghanistan's Shi'ite minority. One of its leaders, Mohammad Mohaqeq, was until recently the planning minister within the Afghan Transitional Administration (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004). AT

The U.S. Defense Department announced on 15 March that it has released 23 Afghan and three Pakistani nationals from detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "The decision to transfer or release a detainee is based on many factors, including whether the detainee is of further intelligence value to the United States and whether he is believed to pose a threat to the United States," the statement added, according to the Defense Department website ( The process to review the status of detainees for release is "not free of risk," the Defense Department said, adding that "at least one detainee has gone back to fight." The Defense Department did not provide further details about the Afghans who have been released, citing security concerns. AT

The Afghan Constitutional Commission's secretariat issued a statement on 14 March denying allegations that the text of the new Afghan Constitution was manipulated after its adoption by the Constitutional Loya Jirga on 4 January, Radio Afghanistan reported. The commission "has categorically rejected claims by some people" that the final text was altered. The statement listed six "improvements made in the form and words of the constitution," which it claimed are proof "of non-manipulation of the constitution." A group of delegates to the Constitutional Loya Jirga mostly belonging to the Jamiat-e Islami party of the former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani charged in January that up of 15 changes were made in the text of the basic law after it was adopted. The Constitutional Commission initially said the final text was identical to the one adopted and any confusion might have risen from the fact that loya jirga delegates were handed a text on 3 January that did not include final changes (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 February 2004). AT

The European Commission has pledged to provide 100 observers to monitor Afghanistan's upcoming elections, Radio Afghanistan reported on 14 March. The team of observers would remain in the country for a period of two months to monitor the elections and "make sure that they are carried out in a democratic way," the report added. The report did not elaborate on dates for the Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections, which are still officially slated for June. Security threats and a slow registration process have prompted many UN, European, and some Afghan officials to call for the postponement of the elections until September or even 2005 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 and 26 February 2004). AT

The Hindukosh News Agency -- not the Afghan Islamic Press, as was stated -- reported events surrounding the "RFE/RL Newsline" item of 15 March titled "Afghan And Pakistani Tribes Clash In Border Region."

Provincial and national officials have confirmed on 15 March that violent unrest in Mazandaran Province was a result of the Guardians Council's changing of parliamentary election results. "Jomhuri-yi Islami" newspaper had reported on 14 March that riots occurred in Fereidunkenar after the Guardians Council canceled all the votes in two ballot boxes used by residents of Babolsar, Bandpay, and Fereidunkenar. Locals reportedly suspected that the move changed the results in favor of conservative Meghdad Najaf-Nejad over reformist Hojatollah Ruhi. Mazandaran Province Governor-General Mohammad Ali Panjeh-Fuladgaran said the unrest began on 12 March and that people were already sensitized by efforts to change local boundaries, ISNA reported. Sixty-eight people were injured, "Etemad" reported on 15 March. After people damaged the Friday prayer leader's house on 13 March, he added, police used their batons to stop them from advancing into Babolsar. The next day, Panjeh-Fuladgaran said, locals damaged Islamic Publicity Organization and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps buildings, but their advance on a police station was halted by a fusillade of rubber bullets. There were some arrests, according to ISNA. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari confirmed that account and urged the Guardians Council to consult with security and police officials before making such changes, ISNA reported. BS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to a journalist's question regarding the permissibility of labor strikes on 15 March by saying that "any action that weakens the sacred Islamic republican state is not permissible," ILNA reported. "They can go through legal channels and report on the matter to senior officials in order to obtain their rights," Khamenei added. Labor unrest has wracked Iran in recent weeks. The country's teachers ended a one-week strike over pay and living conditions on 13 March, newspapers reported the next day, according to Reuters. An anonymous teacher told Reuters, "We were threatened with being fired if we continued the protests." BS

Iranian Foreign Ministry Director-General for International Political Affairs Amir H. Zamaninia responded on 15 March to a recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution on Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2004) by saying the finding is being "imposed" by one country and "even an elementary review reveals immediately that it is nothing but a tool to serve a narrow-minded, increasingly isolated conviction," according to a copy of his statement on the IAEA website ( Zamaninia described the resolution as "a serious setback." Zamaninia went over the status of several issues: uranium enrichment and reprocessing, the uranium-conversion facility in Isfahan, the laser-enrichment program, plutonium, polonium-210, contaminated environmental samples, and the P-2 centrifuge design ("overblown disproportionately"). There is "undue pressure on Iran," he said in his conclusion, and he referred to a "misrepresentation of facts, over-exaggeration of minor misgivings, and excessive prejudgments," as well as "prejudiced ideological emotions," "the logic of force," and "systematic intransigence." BS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani during his 16 March visit to Japan set a date for IAEA inspectors to visit Iran, RFE/RL reported. "The announced date is correct. 27 March is a Saturday after the Norouz holiday. It has been announced that, after 27 March, the inspectors can visit Iran any time they want and there are no conditions." Ambassador to the IAEA Piruz Husseini had announced on 11 March that the inspectors' visit for the next day was postponed because of the pending Norouz holidays (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 March 2004). BS

Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani told the weekly magazine "Der Spiegel" of 15 March that the demographics in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk must be changed to reflect the city's historical Kurdish majority. "The majority of the population in Kirkuk has always been Kurdish -- this was a thorn in Saddam Hussein's side. Therefore, he expelled us from this city...and replaced us with nonresident Arabs," Barzani said. "We have to reestablish the old status, otherwise all the talk about justice and democracy is worthless." He added that the Kurds "insist" that the provinces of Irbil, Dahuk, Al-Sulaymaniyah, and the city of Kirkuk "be one connected part of the country." Asked about reports that Kurds are circulating maps of an envisioned state of Kurdistan that extends to Armenia in the north, Barzani said: "There is no Kurd who does not want independence. I know, of course, that there is a difference between ambitions and the practical possibilities of implementing them." KR

A survey of some 2,500 Iraqis carried out by Oxford Research International between 10 and 28 February found that most Iraqis are optimistic about their future, BBC reported on 16 March. The BBC, ABC News, and other international broadcasters commissioned the poll. Seventy percent of respondents interviewed said things are going well or quite well in their lives; while only 29 percent believe things are bad. Fifty-six percent said things are better now than before the war, and 49 percent said the invasion of Iraq "was right," although 41 percent believe the invasion "humiliated Iraq." Seventy-nine percent of respondents said they favor a unified Iraq, and 20 percent said they want an Islamic state. Asked about their confidence in a number of groups, more than 40 percent said they have no confidence in the occupation forces, around 35 percent have no confidence in the Coalition Provisional Authority, and around 25 percent have no confidence in the Iraqi Governing Council. More than 40 percent said they have "a great deal" of confidence in Iraq's religious leaders. KR

The survey results showed that there is not one Iraqi leader who enjoys overwhelming support in the country. While more than 70 percent support "an Iraqi democracy," and more than 60 percent said Iraq needs "at the moment" a "single strong Iraqi leader," reported that when asked whom they trust the most, 8 percent named Iraqi Governing Council member Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, while Kurdish council members Mas'ud Barzani and Jalal Talabani each received 6 percent, and Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani received 5 percent. Ten percent of respondents said Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi is a leader they "don't trust at all." Asked about leading political parties, 10 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party in a national election, 7.7 percent for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 6.9 percent for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. KR

A female Iraqi translator working for the coalition was killed in Mosul on 16 March, international media reported. The woman, who worked at the main U.S. military base in Mosul, was gunned down on her way to work. Her brother, who was traveling with her, was injured in the attack against their vehicle, Reuters reported. The attack came one day after four U.S. citizens working as missionaries for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, based in Virginia, were gunned down while driving through the city. The missionaries' automobile reportedly came under fire as they were delivering aid supplies. They were traveling without an escort. A fifth occupant of the vehicle sustained injuries and has been hospitalized. Last week, two U.S. civilian contractors and their Iraqi translator were killed south of Baghdad. KR

Prime Minister Leszek Miller said on 15 March that Poland will maintain its contingent of 2,400 troops in Iraq, Polish media reported. Miller was reacting to the suggestion earlier the same day by Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that Madrid will pull its 1,300 soldiers out of the 9,000-strong Polish-led division in Iraq by 30 June in the absence of a UN mandate. Miller said such a pullout could be perceived as weakness in the face of terror following last week's bomb attacks in Madrid. President Aleksander Kwasniewski said on 16 March that if Spain decides to withdraw its troops from Iraq, Poland will not send more soldiers to fill the gap. "We are working according to a plan, and we cannot change it from day to day and send troops. We don't have them prepared, to be honest," PAP quoted Kwasniewski as saying. Meanwhile, the right-wing opposition League of Polish Families has announced that it will soon submit a draft bill to the Sejm on holding a referendum simultaneously with elections for the European Parliament in June on Poland's military presence in Iraq. JM

A host of senior Czech officials and other politicians said on 15 March that they are not considering a withdrawal of Czech soldiers from Iraq in the wake of the 11 March bombings in Madrid, CTK and local dailies reported. "I would not think of such an alternative because I am sure that it is in Europe's interest to stabilize the situation in Iraq. Our participation helps the affair," Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said, according to CTK. Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and Interior Minister Stanislav Gross echoed Spidla's statement. Gross questioned whether the new Spanish government's vow to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq without a UN mandate would not send the wrong signals to terrorist groups. The shadow defense minister for the opposition Civic Democratic Party, Petr Necas, said he believes a withdrawal of troops would represent a victory for terrorists. Senior members of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia were virtually alone in praising the Spanish Socialists' warning of a troop withdrawal from Iraq, according to local media. The Czech Republic has deployed dozens of military-police officers to Iraq, has peacekeepers in Kosova, and is currently dispatching troops to Afghanistan. AH