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Newsline - March 17, 2004

President Vladimir Putin met on 16 March with Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov to discuss new legislation regarding administrative and social reforms, ORT reported. Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Putin said the creation of an accessible housing market is a crucial task facing the new government. He said that the creation of a mortgage system, which is now largely lacking in Russia, will not be sufficient to resolve the problem. Several expert groups are studying mass housing-construction schemes that have been implemented around the world and their possible application in Russia. Zhukov said that government has drafted 30 new laws relating to this issue. VY

The Constitutional Court on 16 March began hearing a case filed by the Federation Council seeking to restore the Audit Chamber's obligation to report to the Federal Assembly every four months on compliance with the federal budget, RosBalt and Regnum reported. The case was filed by 40 Federation Council members last fall and claims that the Duma suspended the chamber's oversight of the budget because of "a lack of budgetary means." Federation Council Constitutional Legislation Committee Chairman Yurii Sharandin said the constitution and several federal laws mandate such Audit Chamber reports. Audit Chamber Research Institute Director Aleksei Podberezkin told TV-Tsentr on 16 March that suspending budget monitoring has led to a growth in corruption and reduced government accountability. He discounted the Duma's rationale about a lack of funding, saying that each report reveals billions of rubles of waste, sums that far exceed the costs of the monitoring. VY

A powerful explosion at 3 a.m. on 16 March completely destroyed a section of a nine-floor apartment building in Arkhangelsk, leaving at least 50 of the building's 64 residents dead, Russian media reported. The final death toll could be higher, as more than 900 rescue workers will need at least two days to clear away the rubble, an Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying. According to Interior Ministry investigators, the most likely cause of the explosion was a natural-gas leak due to construction of a gas-feeder pipe, RTR and ORT reported on 16 March. Investigators are looking into the possibility that local homeless people removed some bronze fittings from the pipeline in order to sell them for scrap. Local police have released two composite photographs of male suspects who might have been seen by building residents with pieces of the pipe. The Federal Security Service (FSB) said that it has excluded terrorism as a cause of the blast, saying that experts had found no trace of explosives on the scene, reported. The local prosecutor's office has opened a criminal case into "causing death and property damage through negligence," reported on 16 March. VY

Moscow Antiexplosives Center Director Adolf Mishuev told NTV on 16 March that the Arkhangelsk explosion could be the result of "new tactics by terrorists." These tactics are closer to sabotage than to ordinary terrorism. The only thing saboteurs need to do is to remove fittings from a gas pipe and light a candle on a upper floor of the building. When the building fills with gas, it will explode, Mishuev said. on 16 March reported a detail that could support Mishuev's suspicions. The building that exploded belongs to the Interior Ministry, the website reported, saying that it served as a residence for active and retired local Interior Ministry personnel and their families. on 17 March reported that the building housed veterans of the ministry's special forces, including veterans of the war in Chechnya. A spokesman for the local Interior Ministry told the website that the building used to belong to his agency but that it was transferred to the city of Arkhangelsk in the 1990s and only a few police still lived there. VY

Oil giant Yukos, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation, and Sinopec signed an agreement on 16 March in Beijing under which Yukos will deliver to the Chinese firms 6.5 million tons of oil in 2004 and 9 million tons in 2005, reported. The oil will be shipped by rail via Mongolia. Moreover, a Yukos spokesman in China said the company plans to sign a seven-year contract this summer to supply an additional 10 million tons of oil per year to China, the website reported. In 2003, Yukos sold just 3 million tons of oil to China. Analysts noted that Yukos has changed its export policy toward China following the October arrest of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii. Khodorkovskii backed a plan to construct an oil pipeline from Angarsk to the Chinese city of Datsin instead of shipping oil by rail. But the Kremlin seems to favor a pipeline project from Angarsk to the Far East port of Nakhodka that would mostly be used to supply oil to Japan, the United States, and Southeast Asia. Earlier this month, President Putin said that Russia would try to maintain a balance by boosting oil exports by rail to China, and now it appears that Yukos is complying with Putin's suggestion. VY

Former presidential adviser and Foundation for Effective Politics head Gleb Pavlovskii told "Vremya novostei" on 16 March that in the recent presidential campaign, President Putin was supported first of all by "the middle class." "The new urban middle stratum made up the center of his support, and this was not the case in 2000," Pavlovskii said. "Putin has managed to increase the size of the middle class, which almost doubled, and to consolidate it around his policies." In an interview with RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 16 March, Pavlovskii explained that Russia's middle class is a very poor one. "Not everyone has a car," he said, "and some people call it the 'dirty bourgeoisie.'" JAC

Ekspertiz foundation President Mark Urnov commented that the basic interpretation of the election is that the population likes what is happening now, "Vremya novostei" reported on 16 March. "It is not necessary to believe that the president won because the other candidates were not able to access airtime," Urnov said, "although it is strange for me to see that the authorities, who have an 80 percent popularity rating and were guaranteed a good result, clearly tried to block the minority candidates from access to the first and second [television] channels." He added that he thought Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev's 4.1 percent result was undoubtedly less than he would have received had he not faced a "total war against him inside his own party and with the open [participation] of the Kremlin." Urnov also reckoned that the result for presidential candidate Irina Khakamada might have been 1.5 percent to 2 percent higher if Yabloko had not called on voters to boycott the election. JAC

Contrary to earlier reports, former Media Minister Mikhail Lesin has refused to head the new Federal Print and Mass Communications Agency (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 12 March 2004), "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 17 March. Lesin reportedly objected to the fact that, within the new structure, he would have had two supervisors. Lesin's former first deputy, Mikhail Seslavinskii, will be appointed agency director instead. According to the daily, a decision about Seslavinskii was made on 15 March, but the official document has not yet been released. The daily commented that, although Seslavinskii is well acquainted with the media market, it remains an open question whether the new agency will be as influential as the ministry was under Lesin. Seslavinskii is a former State Duma deputy, who was a member of the Our Home is Russia faction and the Stability group. In 1998, he served as director of the Federal Television and Radio Broadcasting Service until that service was abolished in August 1999. JAC

In a televised meeting with President Putin on 16 March, Transportation and Communications Minister Igor Levitin announced that his preliminary plan for his ministry will reduce its staff by 1,700 people, RTR reported. Levitin said the new ministry -- which was created by combining the Communications, Transportation, and Railways ministry -- currently has 2,300 employees. If implemented, Levitan's cuts would counter criticism from commentators such as Problems of Globalization Institute Research Director Mikhail Delyagin, who said on 11 March that he doubts the recent administrative reform will lead to reductions in the number of bureaucrats, RosBalt reported. "We reduced 24 ministries, but created in their place 42 departments," Delyagin said. "In his decree, the president said in black and white that the organization of cooperation among the new structures will be accomplished within the framework of each ministry. If each minister creates his own administrative model, then there will be chaos." JAC

"Novaya gazeta," No. 17, reported on the different ways various regions managed to boost voter turnout for the 14 March presidential election. In Saratov Oblast, the local election commission introduced a system that allows people without fixed addresses to vote. In the Kaluga Oblast city of Obninsk, two grade schools enlisted students in an effort to convince adults that they should vote. At the end of election week, posters appeared in Obninsk showing a radiant child hand in hand with two no-less-happy adults and bearing the words, "We are going to vote." In Rostov-na-Donu, mothers staying with their sick children in the central city hospital were told to get absentee ballots or not to return. According to the weekly, doctors at the hospital were told that the number of voters among patients could not be any lower than the level recorded during the 7 December State Duma election, when around 400 people voted. JAC

Former Communist State Duma Deputy Vasilii Shandybin said on 16 March that he does not intend to give up his career in politics after a second failure to win a seat in the national legislature, reported. Shandybin finished third in a Duma by-election in Sverdlovsk Oblast on 14 March. Shandybin said he will use his experience in Yekaterinburg and his new expertise in the Urals to comment on upcoming elections in the region. His only disappointment, Shandybin said, was the low intellectual level of the residents of Yekaterinburg who could select "such a dimwitted person as [former State Duma Deputy] Yevgenii Zyablintsev." Shandybin said that he is now preparing to run for governor of Bryansk Oblast in December. JAC

State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Korzhakov, who once served as the chief bodyguard of former President Boris Yeltsin and who in 1997 published his controversial "Boris Yeltsin: From Dawn To Sunset" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 August 1997), has written a second volume of his memoirs, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 16 March. The new book reportedly contains even more revelations about the policies and personal lives of Yeltsin and his entourage. An installment from the book published by the daily tells the story of how Korzhakov met pop superstar Michael Jackson on his first visit to Russia in September 1996 and presented him with a sword. It tells how then-presidential administration chief Anatolii Chubais ordered the sword confiscated by Moscow customs officials on the grounds that "it was a national asset." VY

Presidential administration head Dmitrii Medvedev officially presented the newly appointed presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, Vladimir Yakovlev, to the staff of the envoy's office in Rostov, RIA-Novosti reported. Meanwhile, Moscow-based media continue to speculate about the reason for the dismissal of Yakovlev's predecessor, General Viktor Kazantsev. "Novaya gazeta," No. 17, reported that rumors about Kazantsev's dismissal were circulating for more than year, although Kazantsev recently told a Rostov newspaper that they were complete nonsense. Nevertheless, the local business and political elite had been impatiently expecting his departure. According to the newspaper, it was no secret that Rostov Oblast Governor Vladimir Chub and Kazantsev could barely stand each other. JAC

Former presidential envoy Kazantsev was involved in two scandals during his last weeks in the post, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 12 March. One involved the alleged "attempted" bankruptcy of a local defense enterprise and the other was connected to the appointment of former Krasnodar Krai Deputy Governor Leonid Baklitskii to a post on the envoy's staff. Soon after the appointment, the Prosecutor-General's Office launched a criminal investigation of Baklitskii, although the daily did not specify on what grounds. "Russkii kurer" reported the same day that rumors had been circulating that Kazantsev's dismissal was somehow connected to his alleged acquisition of real estate in Europe worth some $5 million. However, official sources did not confirm this report. JAC

As widely anticipated, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov fired Prime Minister Anatolii Popov on 16 March and appointed Sergei Abramov to succeed him, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2004). Abramov, who is 32 and an ethnic Russian, served as Chechen finance minister from early 2001 until early 2003, when he was named to head the Russian Audit Chamber's permanent office in Chechnya. Audit Chamber Chairman and former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin lauded Abramov's appointment. Kadyrov characterized his new prime minister as reliable and a skilled specialist. At the same time, Kadyrov commended outgoing acting Prime Minister Eli Isaev, who took over from Popov during the latter's extended sick leave, but stressed that departing from the practice of naming a Russian as Chechen prime minister would incur Moscow's displeasure. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 March quoted Akhmar Zavgaev, who is Chechnya's deputy in the State Duma, as predicting that the appointment of another Russian prime minister in Chechnya might expedite the return to Chechnya of Russians who left, including badly needed qualified specialists. LF

Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected Chechen president in January 1997 in a ballot recognized by Russia and the international community, chaired a meeting of field commanders in Shatoi Raion on 16 March, reported the following day. Participants discussed and adopted with only minimal changes a plan of military operations for the spring and summer that does not envisage radical changes in either tactics or strategy. Maskhadov hailed as a positive development the fact that, contrary to official pronouncements, most residents of Chechnya did not cast their ballots in the 14 March Russian presidential election. LF

An FSB officer who was one of nine Russians taken prisoner by Chechen resistance forces in Itum-Kale Raion in southern Chechnya on 14 March has told his captors that the FSB has shipped some 200 tons of explosives to France in preparation for staging four separate terrorist attacks, reported on 17 March, quoting the Chechen information agency Kavkaz-Tsentr, which claimed to have received that information by e-mail from the Southwestern resistance front. That front is commanded by field commander Doku Umarov. The alleged FSB agent said the terrorist acts will be perpetrated by four groups, each comprising two FSB agents, and that he was tasked with establishing contact with the Chechen resistance and trying to persuade its representatives to claim responsibility for the attacks after they take place in return for $2 million in cash. Stratfor on 17 March reported that the French authorities "are taking seriously" a letter faxed to several French newspapers the previous day warning of imminent terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, and that French intelligence believes that militant Chechens might be involved in those planned attacks. LF

A visiting European Parliament delegation met in Yerevan on 16 March with Ashot Ghulian and Oleg Yesayan -- foreign minister and parliament speaker, respectively, of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic -- in order to solicit information about the situation in the enclave, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Ghulian told RFE/RL that he repeated Stepanakert's position that no settlement of the conflict should be imposed that goes against the wishes of the unrecognized republic's population. Meeting with the European parliament delegation on 15 March, Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian reaffirmed Yerevan's desire to be included in the EU's "Expanded Europe: New Neighbors" program, according to Arminfo on 15 March, as cited by Groong. LF

Several deputies from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) took issue on 16 March with the annual report on the achievements of Prime Minister Artur Rasizade's government delivered to parliament by Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev, the online daily reported on 17 March. In particular, the unnamed deputies criticized the government's failure to tackle the problems of unemployment and economic monopolies. Siyavush Novruzov (YAP) charged that the structure of the government has remained virtually unchanged since the collapse of the USSR, and demanded sweeping structural reform. Former television journalist Ismail Omarov (YAP) accused unnamed government ministers with significant economic interests of channeling funds to opposition parties and their publications. LF

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman in Office and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi flew on 16 March from Tbilisi to Baku, where he met separately with President Ilham Aliyev, Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev, and leading members of five major opposition parties, Turan reported. Topics discussed included the Karabakh conflict, including efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group to mediate a settlement; human rights; and the domestic political situation in Azerbaijan following the disputed October 2003 presidential election. ITAR-TASS quoted Pasi as saying he considers direct talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan the most effective way of resolving the Karabakh conflict, which he termed "a great danger to the region." Guliev told journalists in Baku the same day, however, that while Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian agreed at their meeting in Geneva three months ago to hold further talks, no date for such talks has been set, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2003). Pasi also pledged support for Azerbaijan's aspirations for closer integration into European structures, according to ITAR-TASS. LF

Opposition Musavat Party Deputy Chairman Sulhadddin Akper was released from pretrial detention late on 16 March, Turan and reported. He was taken into custody five months earlier following the clashes in Baku between police and Musavat Party supporters in the wake of the disputed 15 October presidential ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 20 October 2003). Akper's lawyer said the charges against Akper of organizing mass disorder and resisting the police have been dropped and replaced by one of failing to report a crime. The opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" on 17 March quoted Akper as saying that the opposition was not prepared for its crushing defeat in the 15 October ballot and should engage in a serious discussion of the postelection clashes. Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar has consistently argued that the opposition's conduct was above reproach and that the authorities, which, he believes, rigged the outcome of the ballot, are consequently to blame for the violence. LF

Several hundred police confronted National Democratic Party Chairman Iskander Hamidov on 14 March when he traveled to Gyandja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city, with the intention of meeting with some 5,000 Azerbaijanis forced to flee Kelbadjar Raion in the spring of 1993 in the wake of an Armenian offensive, reported on 16 March. Hamidov was pardoned and released from prison late last year after serving nine years on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January 2004). LF

Following talks on 16 March with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze telephoned Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze and offered to travel to Batumi for talks with him on how to resolve the tensions that have arisen in relations between Adjaria and the central Georgian government, Caucasus Press reported. Abashidze accepted that offer and Burdjanadze traveled to Batumi on the morning of 17 March, accompanied by State Security Minister Zurab Adeishvili. Abashidze told journalists on 16 March that depending on the outcome of his talks with Burdjanadze, Saakashvili might also travel to Adjaria to meet with him, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. LF

In a 16 March interview with the daily "Alia," which was summarized by Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS, Eduard Shevardnadze said every effort should be made to resolve the tensions between Tbilisi and Batumi lest they escalate and spill over to other regions of the country. Stressing that Adjaria is an autonomous republic that enjoys specific rights, he advised against pressuring Abashidze to resign. LF

A Tbilisi district judge has ordered the release from pretrial custody of three investigators from the Prosecutor General's Office charged with negligence for permitting two students from Adjaria detained in Tbilisi last month to return to Batumi, Caucasus Press reported. The two young men gave pledges first not to leave Tbilisi, and then that they would return to the Georgian capital after two days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February and 1 and 9 March 2004). LF

After several failed attempts, the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament in exile, which comprises the Georgian deputies elected to the Abkhaz parliament in late 1991, has elected Temur Mzhavia as its new chairman, Caucasus Press reported on 16 March. Mzhavia, who in the late 1980s supported nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia, joined President Saakashvili's National Movement a few days ago. He succeeds former KGB General Tamaz Nadareishvili, who stepped down as parliament-in-exile chairman two months ago following allegations of corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). Mzhavia defeated two rival candidates, Napoleon Meskhia and deputy parliament-in-exile chairman David Gvadzabia. LF

Nursultan Nazarbaev met on 16 March with EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, Kazinform reported. Patten expressed support for Kazakhstan's eventual entry into both the European Union and the World Trade Organization. Patten also noted that the volume of trade between Kazakhstan and the EU has reached 2 billion euros ($2.45 billion), Khabar reported on 16 March. Patten called Kazakhstan a "mature partner of the EU both economically and politically." "I very much want the European Union and Kazakhstan to cooperate in order to combat such problems as drug trafficking and terrorism," Patten said. DK

Uzbekistan Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Muhammad Jumageldiev denied on 16 March that Uzbekistan plans to denominate its currency, reported. "There are no economic justifications for such talk, since our financial system has strengthened significantly in recent years," he said. Jumageldiyev went on to note that while inflation was 21.6 percent in 2002, it fell to 3.8 percent in 2003. He stressed other economic achievements as well, including an increase in bank deposits, a convertible currency, and a new law on banking confidentiality. As an 11 March report by International Crisis Group (ICG) noted, however, Uzbekistan's official economic statistics are subject to doubt. For example, according to the (ICG) report, "the IMF claims that inflation is running at more than 20 percent," instead of the 3.8 percent announced by the Uzbek government. DK

The nominees to the European Commission from 10 acceding states began two days of informal meetings with commissioners from the existing EU members on 16 March, offering a glimpse at the expanded commission to incorporate eight postcommunist countries and Malta and Cyprus, news agencies reported the same day from Brussels. Enlargement should be formalized on 1 May. The European Parliament will vote in early May on the makeup of a new European Commission, while "formally the 10 new commissioners are appointed by the [EU] Council by qualified majority voting and by common accord with the president of the European Commission," according to the official EU website ( The acceding countries are Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. AH

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka visited Slovenia on 15-16 March at the invitation of a Slovenian businessman, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 16 March. Following a rigged 1996 constitutional referendum and the subsequent establishment of an authoritarian regime in Belarus, European leaders have become increasingly reluctant to invite Lukashenka to their countries. Lukashenka reportedly went skiing at a Slovenian resort and met with former Slovenian President Milan Kucan. Lukashenka's spokeswoman, Natallya Pyatkevich, told RFE/RL on 16 March that the Belarusian president was staying in Minsk. However, later the same day, Belarusian Television reported that Lukashenka completed a brief visit to Slovenia on 16 March, where he held "several working meetings with prominent political figures and major businessmen." Lukashenka's last official visit to a European country outside the CIS was in April 1999, when he visited then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. In November 2002, the Czech government denied Lukashenka an entry visa to attend a NATO summit in Prague. JM

The Verkhovna Rada voted 239-38 on 16 March to approve the government's action plan for 2004, called "Consistency. Efficiency. Responsibility," Interfax reported. The vote simultaneously acknowledged the performance of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet in 2003 as satisfactory. Most lawmakers from Our Ukraine, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not participate in the vote. A separate motion by the opposition to rate the government's performance last year as unsatisfactory was supported just by 109 lawmakers, well below the 226 votes required for approval. JM

Also on 16 March, 294 legislators voted to impose a moratorium on official audits of media outlets in Ukraine during the 2004 presidential-election campaign, UNIAN reported. A similar resolution, which was proposed by Mykola Tomenko from Our Ukraine and Ivan Bokiy from the Socialist Party, was rejected by parliament earlier this month. President Leonid Kuchma issued an instruction to state authorities on 15 March to introduce a similar moratorium (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2004). JM

Ambassador to Finland Matti Maasikas said in a recent interview with the Finnish daily "Etela-Suomen Sanomat" that "Finland's plans to limit the free movement of labor from new EU countries is causing dissatisfaction among Estonians," BNS reported on 16 March. He questioned both the morality and the necessity of the planned restrictions, noting that some Finnish municipalities actively recruit Estonian medical professionals. Maasikas said he does not believe that large numbers of Estonian workers will head for Finland following EU expansion, noting that surveys indicate otherwise. He also noted that Finland's planned restrictions can be bypassed, as they do not apply to the provision of services. Thus, a Finnish company could theoretically hire workers from Estonian companies to work in Finland, he said. SG

Three high-ranking members of the alliance For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL) announced on 16 March that an important aspect of their European Parliament election campaign will be to urge the EU to grant official status to minority languages, including Russian, BNS reported. PCTVL head Tatyana Zdanoka, current parliament deputy Jurijs Sokolovskis, and former parliament deputy Miroslavs Mitrofanovs hold the top three positions on the PCTVL's candidates list for the June elections. Mitrofanovs said the EU's current language policies are discriminatory toward minorities, and proposed that languages such as Catalonian, Basque, and Russian be given the status of official EU languages. Zdanoka, who is banned from running in Latvian parliamentary and local elections because of her post-January 1991 Communist Party membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 August 2002), said the PCTVL wants to establish and is willing to head a party representing ethnic Russians living in the European Union. However, she expressed doubt that it could be formed before the Europarliament elections. SG

The Constitutional Court in its 16 March opening session of hearings to determine whether President Rolandas Paksas violated the constitution rejected appeals by the president's lawyers that the court's chairman Egidijus Kurys and all its judges be dismissed, "Lietuvos zinios" reported the next day. Paksas's legal team argued that Kuris cannot rule impartially on the case because he met in December with parliament Deputy Chairman Gintaras Steponavicius, who was involved in the court's previous deliberations regarding Paksas's granting of Lithuanian citizenship to his greatest financial supporter, Yurii Borisov. The court also rejected the further request that all the court's judges be dismissed because they expressed their opinions of the current case when they announced their decision on Borisov's citizenship on 30 December. In addition, the court rejected requests by the president's lawyers to postpone the hearings to allow them to examine recently received materials. Parliament deputy Raimondas Sukys, one of parliament's advocates in the case, said the actions of the president's legal team were unconstitutional. SG

A Polish Peasant Party (PSL) congress in Warsaw on 16 March elected Janusz Wojciechowski, a deputy parliamentary speaker, as the PSL's new leader, Polish media reported. Wojciechowski received 57 percent support, defeating Janusz Piechocinski to succeed outgoing Chairman Jaroslaw Kalinowski, who announced his decision at the congress not to seek re-election. The PSL, which was in a ruling coalition with the Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union bloc from October 2001 to March 2003, has been sliding in popularity polls. A recent survey suggested the PSL would not clear the 5 percent voting threshold for representation in the Sejm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). JM

A poll conducted by the OBOP polling agency from 4-7 March suggested that the centrist Civic Platform would win a parliamentary election with 29 percent of the vote if elections were held immediately, PAP reported on 16 March. According to OBOP, Self-Defense would be supported by 23 percent of voters, Law and Justice by 12 percent, the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) by 9 percent, the League of Polish Families by 8 percent, and the Polish Peasant Party by 6 percent. It is the first-ever single-digit rating for the SLD registered by polling agencies. The SLD, in a bloc with the Labor Union, won the parliamentary election in September 2001 with 42 percent of the vote. JM

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski met with his Kyrgyz counterpart Askar Akaev in Warsaw on 16 March to discuss economic and political cooperation, PAP reported. The two sides signed four accords, including on cooperation in the building industry, culture and science, and agriculture. The same day, Akaev also met with Prime Minister Leszek Miller and parliamentary speaker Marek Borowski. JM

Czech Senate Chairman Petr Pithart spent an hour in mock prison clothes and a makeshift cell on Prague's Wenceslas Square on 16 March in a continuing bid to focus attention on human rights violations in Cuba, local media reported. Pithart is one of 75 prominent Czechs expected to take part in the four-day event, which marks the first anniversary since Fidel Castro's regime jailed 75 political opponents. Other Czech demonstrators include Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares, Prague Mayor Pavel Bem, and communist-era dissident and Senator Jan Ruml. AH

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Ivan Miklos on 17 March survived a no-confidence vote brought by the People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, TASR reported. The measure was given little chance of success from the outset and fell well short of the required 76 votes in the 150-seat parliament, with 62 deputies in favor, 43 against, and 23 abstentions. AH

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned Slovakia on 16 March that the country's military reforms and transformation must continue after its expected entry into the Atlantic alliance on 29 March, TASR reported. Slovakia is one of seven states invited to join the alliance at the NATO Prague summit in November 2002. "Being a member of NATO is not a signal to rest on one's laurels or that everything has been achieved," de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview ahead of his visit to Bratislava later this week. He stressed that Slovakia is prepared for membership, but said further restructuring is required "because modern threats of our modern society are such that we need easily deployable, usable forces that can be transported at speed over long distances," the agency reported. AH

A Socialist-led majority in parliament voted down an opposition FIDESZ proposal on 16 March to fast track legislation to reduce the size of parliament from the current 386 members to 220-250, Hungarian media reported. Some Free Democrats opposed their coalition partners in the vote, while some opposition deputies voted with the Socialists to scuttle the proposal. Socialist parliamentary-group deputy leader Gabor Juhasz said after the vote that he finds the FIDESZ proposal "strange," since FIDESZ recently refused to discuss a similar proposal by Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, "Nepszabadsag" reported. FIDESZ "has taken down from the shelf" a 1998 proposal on slimming down parliament and "threw it in" for a vote instead of participating in multiparty consultations initiated by Medgyessy, Juhasz concluded. MSZ

Hungary's four largest religious communities -- Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Jewish -- appealed to the Constitutional Court on 16 March, arguing that a law on equal opportunities adopted in January is unconstitutional, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. Church representatives argue that the law should allow the dismissal from, and admission to, church institutions according to considerations of faith. The issue became the subject of heated debate in Hungary after the Karoli Gaspar Calvinist University barred an openly homosexual student from attending the university. The Metropolitan Court in February ruled that the university must readmit the student. MSZ

An unknown gunman injured an 18-year-old Serbian youth in a drive-by shooting near Caglavica in the Prishtina area on 15 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The next day, local Serbs set up a roadblock on the Prishtina-Gjilan road to demand the identification and arrest of his assailant, whom the Serbs insist must be an ethnic Albanian. Some Serbs subsequently stoned UN police near the roadblock, injuring one policeman, and demanded better protection for the Serbian minority. The Kosovar government condemned the shooting and called for calm. Near Mitrovica, two ethnic Albanian boys aged 12 or younger drowned and a third was reported missing and presumed drowned in the Ibar River near the village of Cabra. A 13-year-old Albanian youth escaped what he said was pursuit of the four by a group of Serbian youths with a dog. The Ibar is swollen following a recent thaw. PM

On 17 March, UN police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse several hundred Albanian demonstrators who broke through police checkpoints near the bridge separating the Serbian and Albanian halves of Mitrovica, Reuters reported. Police subsequently said at least four people were killed and 200 injured in gunfire and grenade explosions that began when one Serb allegedly shot off a Kalashnikov. Two Albanians reportedly responded immediately with revolvers. PM

Officials of the OSCE and President Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) said in Prishtina on 15 March that they are pleased with the recent decision by Harry Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), to hold the 23 October parliamentary elections as a contest between closed slates rather than as open voting for individual candidates, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2004). By contrast, officials of Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) and Ramush Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) called for open voting. Initial reports indicate that Serbian politicians will call for a boycott of the vote, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Past practice suggests, however, that the threat of a boycott is more likely to be an opening gambit by representatives of the Serbian minority than their final word. PM

Macedonia officially protested on 16 March an internal decision of the Council of Europe according to which the Macedonian language will be referred to as "Macedonian (Slavic)," while Macedonian nationals will be called "persons from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," "Dnevnik" reported. In a protest note handed over to Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer, the Macedonian government called the decision "unacceptable interference" in Macedonian affairs and a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights in that it discriminates against Macedonian citizens. Under Greek pressure, most international institutions such as the UN and the EU have not recognized Macedonia under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, but as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Talks under the auspices of the UN in New York aimed at resolving the long-standing name dispute are deadlocked (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 July 2003 and 23 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 June 2003). UB

Controversy has developed in Albania over the past month following an attempt by some Muslim leaders to register a party called Motherland, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 15 March from Tirana. Religiously or ethnically based parties are illegal in Albania, so Artan Shaqiri and other supporters of the proposed party deny that it is Islamic in orientation. Shaqiri is a former leader of the Muslim Community of Albania. The current vice chairman of that organization, Ermir Gjinishi, argues against founding the new party. He maintains that it is indeed Islamic, adding that Albania's Muslims do not need a political organization because religion is "a matter of the heart." Some surveys from before World War II found that about 70 percent of Albania's population is of Islamic heritage, while 20 percent have Orthodox and 10 percent Roman Catholic roots. Nearly half a century of militant atheist rule under the communists greatly weakened the role of religion in Albanian society. It is difficult to determine exactly how many adherents each religion has today despite efforts by Muslims, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics to revive their respective communities, often with generous funding from abroad. PM

The Bucharest Appeals Court on 16 March suspended for 30 days a general strike by railway employees just one day after it began, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2004). Trade union leader Voicu Sala said union members will abide by the decision, but added that a strike is still an option following the moratorium if negotiations with three state-owned railway companies fail. Meanwhile, several trade unions have accepted the terms offered by the companies and have signed agreements under which further strikes will be considered illegal for a one-year period. The unions reportedly accepted a 12 percent wage increase for their members. ZsM

The Chamber of Deputies on 16 March rejected a motion initiated by the opposition National Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance that criticized the government's EU-integration policies, Romanian media reported. The motion was dismissed by a vote of 165-41, with 26 abstentions. Democratic Party Executive Chairman Emil Boc said the European Parliament's recent report on Romania's progress in its EU-accession was the harshest of all such country reports for prospective EU entrants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2004). ZsM

An opinion poll released on 16 March found that the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) would take 41 percent of the vote if local elections were held today, Romanian media reported. The opposition National Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance would garner 30 percent of the vote, the Greater Romania Party 14 percent, the Hungarian Democratic Federation in Romania 6 percent, and the Romanian Humanist Party 5 percent. More than 34 percent of the poll's respondents said they do not plan to vote in the local elections in June. The poll indicated that voter preferences for the November parliamentary elections are similar to those for the local elections. In spite of strong support for the ruling party, 72 percent of the poll's respondents believe Romania needs changes in parliament, while 54 percent believe the current government is not able to solve the country's problems. Approximately 64 percent believe corruption has increased over the past year. ZsM

The Council of Observers that oversees state-owned Teleradio Moldova's broadcasting on 16 March appointed Moldovan Radio Chairman Ilie Telescu as president, Flux reported. Telescu was appointed over six other candidates when he received nine of 14 votes in a secret ballot. Telescu's appointment came following the council's dismissal of former Chairman Artur Efremov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). Telescu said he envisions Teleradio Moldova as a "cultural, social" institution, not a commercial one, as opposed to Efremov. ZsM

Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov on 16 March said in reference to the possibility that Spain will pull its forces out of Iraq that the Bulgarian military contingent stationed in Karbala will neither be withdrawn nor reinforced, "Sega" reported. Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has vowed to withdraw Spanish forces fighting in Iraq by 30 June in the absence of a UN mandate. Svinarov said Bulgaria's participation in the coalition does not depend on Spanish participation, "and we do not decide on the composition of our contingent in accordance with the other contingents," stressing that such decisions have to be made by the individual states involved. UB

Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski on 16 March addressed widespread fears that Bulgaria could be a future target for terrorism due to its involvement in Iraq, saying security measures have been stepped up, "Sega" reported. He added, however, that there can be no absolute safety from terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, General Boyko Borisov, the Interior Ministry's chief secretary in charge of police forces, has said he is in permanent contact with President Georgi Parvanov, who earlier demanded that the country's security be tightened (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2004). Borisov said he believes security is best insured by conducting a "balanced foreign policy" based on good-neighborly relations with the Arab world and loyalty to Bulgaria's partners in the EU and NATO. General Kircho Kirov, who heads the National Intelligence Service, told bTV on 16 March that Bulgaria is a potential target for terrorist attacks, but speculated that the country is not currently a priority for Al-Qaeda. However, he warned that the danger of an attack could rise during this summer's Olympic Games in neighboring Greece. UB

Because the 14 March presidential election in Russia lacked any drama, both Russian and Western analysts used the run-up to the vote to ask the larger questions about Russia's long-term trajectory. Predictably, views polarized between the "optimists" and "pessimists," with extremists in both camps assigning ulterior motives to those on the other side of the barricades. Some optimists paint the opposite camp as Cold War warriors and ethnic Russia bashers, while voices from the pessimist camp like to focus on money being made by President Vladimir Putin's apologists.

This overly simplistic dichotomy has to be abandoned. Good things and bad things are happening inside Russia at the same time. Both sides need to recognize this obvious truth. The real question is what if any is the relationship between these two trends.

Since becoming president, Putin has done much to accelerate Russian economic reforms. Putin's government and the new pro-Putin Duma have passed into law a series of fundamental reforms, including a flat income tax of 13 percent, a reduced profit tax (from 35 percent to 24 percent), a new Land Code, and new legislation on currency liberalization. Under Putin, the government has also balanced the budget for several years in a row and sharply reduced international borrowing.

In parallel to these reforms, the economy has boomed. Sparked by the August 1998 de facto devaluation and fueled steadily since by high world oil prices, the economy has grown every year since 1999. Russia's stock market is soaring; foreign direct investment hit an all-time high in 2003; hard-currency reserves are bursting; inflation is modest; and real per capita incomes have grown by more than one-third since Putin came to power. This is a good news story that cannot be denied by the "pessimists."

In parallel to these positive indicators of economic reform and growth, Russia's political system has become less pluralistic since Putin was first elected president. Putin did not inherit from former President Boris Yeltsin a consolidated democracy. On the contrary, at the end of Yeltsin's rule, democratic institutions were weak and fragile. In his first term as president, Putin has done nothing to strengthen democratic institutions and much to weaken them still further.

In his first term in office, Putin continued a brutal and ineffective war in Chechnya, acquired de facto control of all major national television networks, turned both the Federation Council and State Duma into rubber stamps, and tamed regional barons who once served as a powerful balance to Yeltsin's presidential rule. He has arbitrarily used law enforcement structures to jail or send into exile political foes. He has removed candidates from ballots and rigged regional elections; harassed and arrested human rights activists, outspoken journalists, and environmental leaders; and weakened Russia's independent political parties and civil society.

The 14 March presidential vote was the least competitive election in Russia's post-communist history. If, as alleged by the NGO Golos, which monitored the ballot independently, more than 1 million voters disappeared from the registers between December and 14 March, it will also rank as one of the least fair.

When observed in isolation, each of these steps in Putin's plan can be interpreted as something besides general democratic backsliding. The government in Chechnya did not work effectively. Former oligarchs Boris Berezovskii and Vladimir Gusinskii have many skeletons in their closets. Some of the regional barons that Putin has reined in actually behaved as tyrants in their own fiefdoms. Former Yukos CEO Mikhial Khodorkovskii cannot really be compared to Soviet-era human rights dissident Andrei Sakharov. And what president in the world does not want to enjoy a parliamentary majority?

More generally, everyone believes that Russia needs a more effective state to develop both markets and democracy. But when analyzed together, the thread uniting these events is clear -- the elimination or weakening of independent sources of power. This is a bad news story that cannot be denied by the "optimists."

After recognizing the obvious -- good things and bad things are happening at the same time -- the real question that both sides of this debate should be addressing is what is the relationship between these two different dynamics?

For instance, some argue that Putin's antidemocratic policies are a necessary evil for achieving positive economic growth. These apologists cite successful autocratic reformers in South Korea and Chile in the recent past and in China today as positive analogies for Putin's Russia.

Without question, reforming economies need functioning states to succeed. Lawless states or regimes captured by oligarchs do not provide conditions for growth. Dictatorships, however, do not always provide these conditions either. On the contrary, for every autocrat that pushes through reform, attracts investment, and spurs growth, there is another who blocks reform, steals assets, and impedes economic development. For every China, South Korea, and Chile, there is a Myanmar, a Pakistan, and an Angola.

The experience in the postcommunist world is clear: The fastest democratizers are also the fastest economic reformers and the most successful economies. Poland did not need an iron hand to spur economic growth. The correlation between growing authoritarianism and economic growth in Russia might be spurious, not causally related.

It is difficult to connect the dots between Putin's antidemocratic actions and economic growth. How exactly did the destruction of Media-MOST help Russian GDP grow? Does the arrest of antiwar activists leading a demonstration in downtown Moscow actually add to Russia's hard-currency reserves? Is there any evidence to suggest a positive relationship between the war in Chechnya and Russian government surpluses? In fact, one might even speculate how much higher Russia's growth numbers would have been over the last four years if Russian democracy had been developing rather than eroding.

The burden of causation, however, also falls on the "pessimists." Many of them argue abstractly that the erosion of democracy in Russia will scare away investment, slow down economic growth, and lead to more antagonistic relations with the United States and Europe. They cite anecdotal evidence of rising corruption during Putin's first term and the Kremlin's hostility to Western strategic investors in the oil-and-gas sector as signs of bad times to come for the economy if oil prices drop, and to growing animosity between the European Union and Russia as an inevitable consequence of Russia's autocratic drift.

Yet, if Russia were a consolidated democracy, would corruption decrease? Would direct foreign investment grow, and would Russia enjoy better relations with the European Union? Very probably, yes. Strong executives in control of vast resources who are not held accountable by an independent press or opposition parties tend to be corrupt. They tend not to diversify the economy and not to push for "structural" or "administrative" reforms. They tend to consolidate dictatorships, which by definition cannot join clubs like the EU. The evidence for making this causal claim with respect to Russia today, though, is still weak.

In trying to understand Russia, we should be asking these questions about the relationship between political and economic change. At a minimum, we have to recognize that good things and bad things can happen simultaneously. The glass can be both half full and leaking.

Michael McFaul is an associate professor of political science and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University. He recently published, with Timothy Colton, "Popular Choice and Managed Democracy: The Russian Elections of 1999 and 2000."

Thirty-two people were reportedly killed in clashes during a raid by Pakistan's Frontier Corps in the town of Wana in the South Waziristan tribal agency that borders Afghanistan on 16 March, the Islamabad-based daily "The News" reported the next day. Inter-Services spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan said eight Frontier Corps troops and 24 "foreign terrorists" died in the incident. Violence erupted when Frontier Corps troops attacked two houses owned by fugitive militants Nek Mohammad and Nur Islam, who allegedly were sheltering the foreign militants, "The News" reported. The identities of the dead foreign militants were not known, but two have reportedly been identified as Chechens. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has stated that his country "will not allow foreigners to get training" in Pakistan's tribal areas and "then go back to Afghanistan for killing their Muslim brothers," the BBC reported on 17 March. According to the BBC, also citing General Sultan, most of the 24 people killed in the raid in Wana were Pakistani tribesmen sheltering the alleged foreign terrorists. AT

A spokesman for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said on 16 March that U.S. forces were involved in patrols and house searches in the southeastern Afghan Paktika Province bordering the South Waziristan region of Pakistan, AP reported the next day. Hilferty said U.S. commanders "continue to coordinate and cooperate" with their Pakistani counterparts, but he declined to say whether the U.S. operations were linked with the Wana raid (see above). U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said en route to his trip to the region on 15 March that the United States will ask Islamabad "for greater action along the Afghan-Pak border," a U.S. State Department press released indicated ( Musharraf told a tribal delegation on 15 March that "over two dozen Americans are operating in the area [of South Waziristan] who are sharing intelligence with the administration," the Karachi-based daily "Dawn" reported on 16 March. However, Musharraf told the gathering, "U.S. troops would not be engaged in the South Waziristan's operation. I can quit [my office], but [I] will not compromise on vital national interest" (see also "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004). AT

Secretary of State Powell arrived in the Afghan capital Kabul on 17 March for a brief visit that was expected to include talks with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, RFE/RL reported. Powell, who arrived from New Delhi, was expected to discuss antiterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, where U.S.-led forces recently launched a new offensive in search of Taliban and Al-Qaeda loyalists. From Kabul, Powell is scheduled to travel to Islamabad. At a voter-registration station for women, Powell said, "President [George W.] Bush is totally committed to the reconstruction and rebuilding of Afghanistan into a nation that will be resting on a constitution. It will be a democracy with an economy that begins to flourish and where all people in the society can have hope for a better future," RFE/RL reported. AT

One Afghan soldier was killed and another injured in an attack in Kandahar Province on 15 March, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. General Khan Mohammad, commander of the 2nd Military Corps in Kandahar, said unidentified attackers in a vehicle targeted a security post along a highway west of the city. He said the attackers managed to flee. AT

Anonymous "U.S. sources" said on 16 March that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei told reporters during his current visit to Washington that an Iran-U.S. dialogue could help resolve questions over its nuclear program, Reuters reported. El-Baradei said he believes the Iranians are amenable to a deal but are waiting for Washington to make the first move. U.S. officials have said they do not know if the idea emanated from official Tehran or if it is el-Baradei's personal view, and they also questioned which Iranian faction might have produced such a suggestion. The "Financial Times" reported on 17 March that Iran proposed a "road map" the previous year for normalizing relations that would address the nuclear question, Iran's support for terrorism, and its recognition of Israel. This proposal was submitted to Washington on 4 May 2003 by Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran. Iran reportedly expected a lifting of economic sanctions, consideration of its security interests, normalization of relations, and the elimination of U.S. "regime-change" terminology. Washington's failure to respond to the Iranian proposal reportedly stems from divisions between realists who advocate dealing with the current regime and neoconservatives expecting the regime's internal collapse. BS

Director-General el-Baradei told reporters during a 16 March visit to Washington that Iran must help prove the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, Reuters reported. "I trust that Iran understands the importance to...create confidence," el-Baradei said. "The ball is in Iran's court." BS

Meghdad Najaf-Nejad, a parliamentarian-elect from Mazandaran Province, has resigned, ISNA reported on 17 March. The provincial election headquarters said that by-elections will take place in the Babolsar and Fereidunkenar constituency. Najaf-Nejad won his seat after the Guardians Council changed the election results, and this led to several days of violence and unrest in the area (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2004). BS

Nahavand representative Mohammad Reza Ali-Husseini was found guilty of insulting election-supervisory boards and the Guardians Council, ISNA reported on 16 March. The Public Prosecutor's Office summoned Tehran parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Khatami on 16 March for making critical comments about the February parliamentary elections, ISNA reported. On the same day, the Public Prosecutor's Office summoned Tehran's Mohsen Armin, whose resignation was accepted just days earlier, ISNA reported. The complaint relates to his interviews about the elections. Mashhad's Ali Tajernia said on 10 March that he has been summoned to appear before the special court for government employees, ISNA reported. Tehran's Mohsen Mirdamadi and Isfahan's Rajab-Ali Mazrui were summoned for unknown reasons, "Hambastegi" reported on 10 March. A parliamentary source told ISNA on 7 March about other cases: Kazerun's Mohammad-Baqer Baqeri-Nejad-Fard is to appear in court following a complaint from the police; Sardasht and Piranshahr's Hasel Daseh faces a complaint from the police; Pakdasht's Mohammad Qomi was summoned for unknown reasons; Khavaf and Rashtkhar 's Gholamheidar Ebrahimbay-Salami was summoned in relation to his work for "Hambastegi" daily; and Isfahan's Ahmad Shirzad was summoned for a speech he made in December. BS

Iran's Foreign Ministry turned over $2 million to the country's Red Crescent Society for its efforts on behalf of victims of the December earthquake in the Kerman Province city of Bam, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on 17 March ( The chief of the Red Crescent Society demanded an accounting earlier in the month because only $1.9 million of the more than $11.8 million in foreign funds sent to Iran after the earthquake reached the victims (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 March 2004). The society's public-relations chief, Seyyed Mehran Nurbakhsh, said his boss's complaint prompted the Foreign Ministry to release $2 million to the society and another $5 million to the Economic Affairs and Finance Ministry, reported. This made the total funding to the society about $4 million. But Nurbakhsh added that international donors have not fulfilled their financial pledges. President Khatami said on 16 March, "So far, there has been no news of the big figures that were promised," ILNA reported. "For instance, our southern neighbors promised to give us $400 million but, they set conditions for it and if their conditions are not in tune with our situation, then we might not accept the loan" BS

An aide to Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has denied that the ayatollah sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan regarding the UN's future role in Iraq, Reuters reported on 17 March. UN special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi told a press briefing ( at the UN on 16 March that al-Sistani sent a message to Annan a few days ago saying that he had nothing to do with Iraqi press reports that contended the ayatollah does not want the UN to play a role in Iraq. According to Brahimi, the letter said that the ayatollah supports the return of the UN to Iraq. Brahimi added that the UN was "waiting for the [Coalition Provisional Authority] and the Governing Council to tell us if the UN was required to play a role, and we will take it from there." Meanwhile, Hamid al-Khaffaf, director of al-Sistani's office in Lebanon, said on 17 March that "we affirm that there was no letter sent from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to Mr. Kofi Annan...regarding the return of the United Nations to Iraq," Reuters reported. KR

An unidentified Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official told of 15 March that PUK security forces have uncovered a plot by Al-Qaeda to carry out a series of suicide bombings in the northern Iraqi city of Al-Sulaymaniyah during celebrations on 21 March of the Kurdish new year, or Norouz. The unidentified official said that Kurdistan Regional Government security forces recently seized a vehicle near Kifri carrying 10 explosives-packed vests that could be used in suicide attacks. Other explosives were also reportedly found in the vehicle. The men in the vehicle were reportedly traveling from the Al-Ramadi area west of Baghdad and using a safe house in Kifri, according to one of the men arrested. When the security forces stormed the safe house, they reportedly found a number of detonators and electronic devices that can be used for making bombs. A woman in the house was also detained. The suspects confessed under interrogation to a plan to use the vests in suicide attacks on 21 March in Al-Sulaymaniyah. They also reportedly confessed to being members of Ansar Al-Islam, which has been linked to Al-Qaeda. KR

On the 16th anniversary of the deadly chemical-weapons attacks carried out against the Kurdish town of Halabja by the deposed Hussein regime, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer on 16 March promised justice to the victims, international media reported the same day. The chemical-weapons attack left an estimated 5,000 dead and another 10,000 wounded. Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka Chemical Ali, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, was charged with carrying out the 1988 attacks. During a memorial service in Halabja honoring the victims of the attacks, Bremer said: "For those in my country and elsewhere who unaccountably still ask if [war] was worth ridding the people of Iraq of Saddam Hussein, I say: Come to Halabja. Come see the tombstones of the 5,000 men, women, and children killed here by chemical gases. Come and look in the faces of their survivors." KR

The London-based newspaper "Al-Zaman" reported on 16 March that U.S. National Security Council staff member Ambassador Robert Blackwell's visit to Iraq this week is shrouded in secrecy under a total media blackout. Sources told the daily that the media blackout will allow the presidential envoy to hold talks with Iraqi officials away from the spotlight. Fatih Khashif al-Ghata, deputy to Governing Council member Salamah al-Khafaji, said that Blackwell has been taking notes and listening to the views of Governing Council members regarding the transfer of power, but is not offering his own views on the process. "Al-Zaman" reported that Blackwell's trip is addressing two topics: the transfer of power, and the upcoming status-of-forces agreement between Iraq and the coalition that is expected to be agreed upon by 31 March. KR