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Newsline - March 18, 2004

President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on 17 March with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to discuss bilateral economic and political relations, "Izvestiya," RTR, and other Russian media reported. Topics of discussion included the proposed creation of a joint economic zone including Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus; the creation of a Russian-Ukrainian natural-gas consortium; and the resolution of a border dispute in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Straits. Speaking to journalists, the presidents said that the agreements reached on these issues last year have been submitted to both countries' parliaments for ratification. Putin and Kuchma also discussed the situation in Georgia, and Kuchma congratulated Putin on his "tremendous victory" in Russia's 14 March presidential election. VY

"Izvestiya" on 17 March commented that despite the niceties, many unresolved issues remain between the two countries. Although the presidents were able to defuse the Kerch Straits crisis in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003), no permanent solution has been found, particularly on the issue of delimiting the common border in the Azov Sea. Nevertheless, Putin is interested in reaching as many agreements as possible with Kuchma quickly because later this year, Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada might well adopt political reforms that could drastically reduce the power of the Ukrainian president and transform the country into a parliamentary republic. VY

In his first major press-conference, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 17 March that Russia's foreign-policy course will remain unchanged, as he is quite satisfied with the results Russia has achieved in the international arena over the last year, Russian and Western news agencies reported. "The direction of every key avenue of international life has been set up, and we will continue it," he said. In particular, he said Russia still backs the so-called road map Middle East peace plan and that Moscow's positions on North Korea's nuclear program and on the situation in Iraq remain unchanged. Lavrov repeated President Putin's statement that Russia will "protect its national interests without resorting to aggression or imperial ambitions" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2004). He downplayed the notion that a diplomatic rift has developed between Russia and the European Union over Moscow's reluctance to extend its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) to the 10 countries set to join the EU in May. Lavrov rejected the suggestion that Russia might impose economic sanctions on Latvia because of the problems that country's Russian minority faces. "The norms of international law do not envisage such sanctions," Lavrov said. VY

At the same 17 March press conference, Foreign Minister Lavrov defended Russia's cooperation with Iran's nuclear program, saying that Iran "has every right to develop nuclear energy peacefully," Russian and Western media reported. He described Iran as one of Russia's most important partners in many areas, especially in the fight against international terrorism. Lavrov denied recent Western media reports alleging that Russia illegally supplied arms and technology to the regime of depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "There are a lot of accusations, but no facts, and unless the facts are on the table, there is nothing to discuss," Lavrov said. He also reaffirmed Moscow's commitment to fighting international terrorism. "The position of the Russian leadership remains the same: There must be no compromises in the fight against terrorism," Lavrov said. VY

Foreign Minister Lavrov also said Moscow demands that Qatar immediately release the two Russian security-agency employees who are being held in connection with the killing last month of exiled former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 20, and 27 February 2004). Lavrov said that former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had asked the Qatari authorities to release the men immediately and this demand remains in effect. The "Washington Post" on 15 March reported that the two men confessed, possibly under torture, that they booby-trapped Yandarbiev's car with a device they obtained through the diplomatic pouch. The Foreign Ministry on 17 March summoned Qatari Ambassador to Russia Sa'ad Muhammad al-Kubaysi and repeated the demand for the release of the detained men, reported. VY

Oil giant Sibneft, which is controlled by oligarch and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich, signed a sponsorship deal in Moscow on 17 March with the Moscow soccer club CSKA worth $54 million over the next three years, ORT and RTR reported. Sibneft President Yevgenii Shvidler told journalists the money will be used to acquire new players and to construct a new stadium for the club. Abramovich was widely criticized in Russia, particularly by Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin, when he purchased England's Chelsea soccer club in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 July and 4 August 2003). Stepashin called the move "an arrogant and demonstrative challenge to Russia." Abramovich spent $100 million acquiring new players for Chelsea in the first five weeks that he owned the team (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 August 2003). Moscow commentators described the CSKA deal as Abramovich's response to attacks on his patriotism and to indications that the authorities are considering criminal investigations in Sibneft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2004). VY

An Audit Chamber commission has arrived in Chukotka to begin a probe into the finances of the administration of Governor Abramovich, "Izvestiya" and reported on 17 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2004). The entire budget of the autonomous okrug is less than the nearly $500 million that, according to the British press, Abramovich has invested into the Chelsea soccer club over the last year, noted. Abramovich was recently named the richest person in the United Kingdom. The website quoted Audit Chamber head Stepashin as saying that "money obtained from the activity of oil companies should be invested into new oil wells, exploration, and the development of the national economy, and not used to buy foreign soccer teams." VY

"Izvestiya" reported on 17 March that the Duma is preparing a bill that would limit access to the Internet with the goal of combating pornography, spam, and intellectual piracy. According to the daily, information about the project is "classified," and no one from the Information Policy or Science and Technology committees will say anything about it. The daily reported that, according to its unidentified sources in the Duma, the draft legislation already exists on paper and was developed by the Kremlin. It will reportedly be introduced for consideration by the lower legislative house this fall. JAC

Also on 17 March, State Duma deputies rejected a bill drafted by Communist faction member Viktor Ilyukhin that would have amended the law on guarantees to former presidents, "Vremya novostei" reported on 18 March. The bill would have deprived former presidents of immunity from criminal prosecution. Only 69 deputies voted in favor of the bill, while 72 voted against. The measure needed 226 votes to pass. Ilyukhin submitted a similar bill last year, but this time, according to the daily, he did not specify that it was targeted specifically at former President Boris Yeltsin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2003). JAC

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov made more new appointments on 17 March, Russian media reported. Fradkov named former First Deputy Transportation Minister Aleksandr Neradko to head the Transportation and Communications Ministry's new Transport Oversight Service. Fradkov also appointed former First Deputy Railways Minister Mikhail Akulov to head the new Federal Railways Agency, Interfax reported. Also on 17 March, Fradkov appointed Andrei Krotov director of secretariat of government chief of staff Dmitrii Kozak, RIA-Novosti reported. Krotov previously served as director of the secretariat for Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's chief of staff, Konstantin Merzlikin. JAC

Six members of the State Duma's Security Committee have appealed to Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev, and Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev to conduct an inquiry into the political activities of former Prime Minister Kasyanov, reported on 17 March. According to the deputies, a special fund has been created that will provide financing for Kasyanov's future career. The basic source of money for the fund reportedly was the State Fisheries Committee, which was recently abolished. The authors of the appeal allege that former acting State Fisheries Committee Chairman Vladimir Burkov sent about $5 million each month to the fund. According to the website, the six deputies include: retired FSB Colonel General Gennadii Gudkov (Unified Russia), investigative journalist Aleksandr Khinshtein (Unified Russia), Communist faction member Ilyukhin, former head of the Kursk Oblast police Aleksei Volkov (Unified Russia), former Nizhnii Novgorod businessman Vladimir Stalmakhov (Unified Russia), and former director of the City Without Narcotics NGO Yevgenii Roizman (independent). JAC

"Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 17 March summarized the key finding of a 700-page study of Russia's regional political and economic elites that was conducted by the Institute for Situational Analysis and New Technologies. The study, which was conducted in 66 regions of Russia, found that the ratio of bureaucrats to citizens in Russia is not that high compared to other countries. Russia has seven bureaucrats per 1,000 citizens, compared to 14 per 1,000 in Austria, 8.8 in England, and 7.8 in the United States. The study also found that the number of former military and intelligence officials entering the ranks of regional leaderships is fewer than the number entering from the commercial sector. The authors suggest that one reason for this could be that former "siloviki are not very effective in the capacity of regional administrators." The authors also predicted that the political position of medium-sized businesses will unavoidably strengthen. "Already regional bread, beer, pasta, and other kinds of magnates have obtained seats in the local legislatures," the report states. JAC

Kamchatka Oblast Governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev faces a possible prison sentence of up to 10 years if convicted of exceeding his authority and causing serious harm, RIA-Novosti reported on 17 March. A an inter-raion prosecutor in August 2002 launched a criminal case against Mashkovtsev on suspicion that he illegally issued an order allowing an unlimited catch of fish in local rivers. Interfax on 17 March, however, reported that no criminal case has yet been filed, and officials from the prosecutor's office are currently talking to Mashkovtsev. At the time of Mashkovtsev's order, then-Justice Minister Yurii Chaika and first deputy presidential envoy to the Far East Federal District Gennadii Apanasenko warned Mashkovtsev that he would be held criminally responsible if he lifted limits on the salmon catch (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2002). JAC

In a statement dated 18 March and circulated by, Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected Chechen president in January 1997 in a ballot recognized by both Russia and the international community, expressed his gratitude to the European Parliament for its adoption on 26 February of a declaration formally condemning as an act of genocide the 1944 deportation on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin of the entire Chechen people to Central Asia. Maskhadov expressed the hope that the European Parliament will follow up by adopting a similar statement condemning the ongoing war in Chechnya as genocide. He warned that the indifference of much of the international community to Russia's systematic annihilation of the Chechens is impelling thousands of young men to join the ranks of the Chechen resistance, and that some of those volunteers "believe they have the moral right to use against the enemy the methods he uses [against us, but] which we condemn." LF

Arab-born Chechen field commander Abu-Sayaf (Said-Emin) has told the Chechen news agency Kavkaz-Tsentr that there is no truth to media claims that Chechens were behind a letter sent earlier this week to the French authorities warning of imminent terrorist attacks on French territory, reported on 18 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004). Abu-Sayaf further denied the existence of a brigade named after Movsar Baraev, the young Chechen who commanded the Chechen fighters responsible for the October 2002 Moscow theater hostage taking. He said "we are not waging war against France," and that all his men are currently either in Chechnya or Russia. He repeated that the fighters of the southwest front have information that the FSB is planning terrorist attacks in France, which it hopes to blame on the Chechen resistance. Interfax on 17 March quoted a Russian Foreign Ministry official as dismissing the Chechen allegations as "ravings" not worthy of comment. LF

Robert Kocharian dismissed Aram Tamazian on 17 March from the post of prosecutor-general, to which he was appointed three years ago, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2001). No reason for the dismissal was cited, and Deputy Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian was named to succeed Tamazian. Hovsepian served as prosecutor-general between 1998 and late 1999, when he was constrained to step down in the wake of the October parliament shootings, in which eight senior officials were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 November 1999). Hovsepian has reportedly built up an extensive business empire that includes a leading dairy firm and a television channel. LF

Solomon Pasi met in Yerevan on 17 March with President Kocharian; Prime Minister Andranik Markarian; Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian; and Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, to discuss democratization, human rights, and possible approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Oskanian told journalists following his meeting with Pasi that he will meet in Prague on 29 March with his Azerbaijani counterpart Vilayat Guliev in an attempt to clarify whether Azerbaijan is ready to continue talks on tentative agreements reached three years ago. Guliev was quoted last month as saying Baku wants to restart negotiations from scratch (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). The United States, Russian, and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is tasked with trying to mediate a solution of the conflict, will also attend the Prague talks, according to Baku Today on 17 March, as cited by Groong. Baku Today also quoted the Azerbaijani "525 gazeti" as saying that the Minsk Group co-chairs will present at the Prague talks a new proposal for resolving the conflict peacefully. LF

Ilham Aliyev signed a decree on 17 March pardoning 129 prisoners, including former insurgent Colonel Suret Huseinov, Turan and ITAR-TASS reported. Huseinov spearheaded the June 1993 insurgency that culminated in the fall of the Popular Front-led government, after which he was named prime minister by acting President Heidar Aliyev. Aliyev fired Huseinov in October 1994, accusing him of attempting to overthrow him. Huseinov fled to Russia, whence he was extradited in 1997. A court sentenced him in 1999 to life imprisonment on charges of preparing a coup d'etat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 1999). In 2001, the Council of Europe declared him a political prisoner. Of the remaining prisoners released, 42 were sentenced for crimes against the state and 24 for the alleged coup attempt in March 1995. LF

A two-day meeting of the Caspian working group comprised of deputy foreign ministers of the five Caspian littoral states -- Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- took place in Baku on 16-17 March, Russian and Azerbaijani media and IRNA reported. The session -- the 13th round of such talks -- succeeded in coordinating several more paragraphs of a draft convention defining the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Addressing participants, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Guliev said he believes agreement on the sea's status can be reached through "constructive compromises and in conformity with international law," ITAR-TASS reported. He welcomed the resumption of talks, suspended two years ago, between Baku and Ashgabat on delineating their respective sectors of the sea on the basis of the median line. But Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari denounced the bilateral and trilateral agreements signed in recent years between Russia and Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan, and those three states on delineating their respective sectors of the sea, IRNA reported. Safari said Tehran will not recognize such agreements as legal until all five states reach agreement on the sea's status, and that Iran continues to demand that the sea be divided into five approximately equal sectors, giving Iran 20.4 percent. Safari further demanded that the Caspian be demilitarized, saying that the presence in the region of foreign troops "only complicates the matter." LF

In line with an agreement reached on 17 March during seven hours of talks in Batumi between Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Adjar Abashidze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004), President Mikheil Saakashvili traveled to Batumi on 18 March for talks with Abashidze aimed at defusing the tensions between the central and regional governments, Georgian media reported. Other Georgian officials and journalists accompanying Saakashvili were reportedly halted at the outskirts of Batumi. Burdjanadze characterized her 17 March talks with Abashidze as "constructive, good and open," adding that both sides are anxious to resolve their differences without resorting to violence. Abashidze pledged not to prevent voting in Adjaria in the 28 March Georgian parliamentary elections, and to lift the state of emergency he declared on 14 March as soon as the Georgian troops and armored vehicles deployed along the internal border between Adjaria and the rest of Georgia are withdrawn, Caucasus Press reported. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov was also present at Burdjanadze's talks with Abashidze, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Moscow on 17 March that he counts on Luzhkov to help mediate an agreement between Tbilisi and Batumi, Interfax reported. Saakashvili, however, said on 17 March that while he respects Luzhkov, he does not consider him suited to mediate between the central Georgian government and Abashidze, according to ITAR-TASS. LF

Georgian National Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili flew to Moscow on 17 March for talks with his Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov and with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Minister Lavrov, Caucasus Press reported. Lavrov stressed Moscow's respect for Georgia's territorial integrity and urged that the tensions between Tbilisi and Batumi be resolved through peaceful constructive dialogue, ITAR-TASS reported. Merabishvili told journalists after those meetings that Moscow will support Saakashvili, whom it regards as a partner in the struggle against separatism, terrorism, and drug trafficking. LF

Following the closure of the Sarp border and customs post on the border between Adjaria and Turkey, imports by road from Turkey have been diverted to the Vale customs point in southern Georgia, Caucasus Press reported on 17 March, but many haulage firms refuse to use that route because of the poor condition of the roads in that region, and cargoes are turning back at the border. The losses from the closure of the Sarp crossing are estimated at $200,000 per day, according to Caucasus Press. Georgian warships are also blocking the entrance to the port of Batumi, and seven cargo vessels have been intercepted and escorted to Poti, according to Interfax on 17 March. Azerbaijan's Transport Ministry has suspended the shipping of oil by rail to Batumi until the conflict is resolved, Interfax reported on 17 March. Georgian Economy Minister Irakli Rekhviashvili told journalists in Poti on 17 March that if the blockade on Adjaria lasts longer than one month it will inflict a serious blow on Georgia's struggling economy, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Georgian displaced persons who fled their homes in Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war have taken issue with the election of Temur Mzhavia as chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament in exile, Caucasus Press reported on 17 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004). A spokesman for the displaced persons told the agency they do not know who Mzhavia is or what, if anything, he has ever done on their behalf. Mzhavia reportedly joined President Saakashvili's National Movement days before his election to head the exile legislature. LF

The Majilis, or lower house of Kazakhstan's parliament, gave its approval on 17 March to a bicameral conciliatory commission's amendments to a new media bill, Kazinform reported. The amended bill now goes to the upper house, and, if it passes there, it will be considered approved. The commission's recommendations fine-tuned eight minor issues in the bill, which was drawn up by Kazakhstan's Information Ministry, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 17 March. The bill has drawn harsh criticism from journalists and media watchdogs, who claim that it will provide Kazakh authorities with additional legal mechanisms to limit freedom of expression. DK

Gennadii Benditskii, a correspondent for the weekly "Vremya," was acquitted on 17 March of libel charges, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Asygat Zhabagin, head of the Republican Innovation Fund, sued Benditskii for libel in December 2003 over an investigative article the journalist wrote about the alleged disappearance of $1.5 million from the Kazakh Defense Ministry (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 2 February 2004). The case was widely seen as an attempt to use the courts to muzzle an excessively inquisitive journalist. DK

A group of 250 to 300 people gathered in Kerben, Kyrgyzstan, on 17 March to commemorate the second anniversary of the 17-18 March 2002 demonstrations that claimed the lives of six demonstrators when police opened fire on the crowd, reported. Participants included opposition parliament deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, whose arrest sparked the demonstration, as well as relatives of the victims. The commemorative ceremony consisted of prayers and speeches. It went off without incident. Kyrgyz lawmakers, including Beknazarov, have recently renewed their efforts to conduct a full inquiry into the 2002 Aksy events. DK

EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov on 17 March, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. The two discussed EU-Central Asian relations, EU-Tajik cooperation, and the possibility of Tajikistan's eventual entry into the World Trade Organization. Patten stressed that Tajikistan and the EU are set to sign a partnership and cooperation agreement this summer and invited Rakhmonov to Brussels to sign it, Tajik television reported. ITAR-TASS also quoted Patten as saying he is confident that "Rakhmonov and the country's parliament are interested in the [February 2005 parliamentary] elections being fair and open." For his part, Rakhmonov noted that Tajikistan has put in place legal mechanisms that ensure the irreversibility of the democratic process, Tajik news agency Khovar reported. DK

Lieutenant General Abdurahmon Azimov, head of the Tajik Border Protection Committee, told ITAR-TASS on 17 March that Tajikistan is ready to take a 600-kilometer section of the Tajik-Afghan border under its own jurisdiction. According to Azimov, Russian troops could depart as early as this summer, leaving only "military advisers at all frontier posts and commandants' offices." He allowed, however, that the number of remaining Russian advisers could be "quite large." Azimov will discuss the issue on 9 April with Russian Federal Security Service First Deputy Chairman Colonel General Vladimir Pronichev, who heads the Russian border-guard service, at a meeting of CIS border-troop commanders in Kyiv. Azimov also noted that one of the most difficult issues to be resolved is the wage disparity between Russian border guards and their Tajik counterparts, who earn significantly less. DK

Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, who is also chairman of the Administrative Reform Commission, told a 17 March briefing that administrative reform will "become an important factor in accelerating our country's economic development," Interfax reported. Uzbekistan is gearing up to downsize more than 40,000 officials. "These measures will save more than 40.5 billion soms [$40 million] each year," Azimov told journalists on 16 March, according to the next day. "This will create the most compact and modest management apparatus in the entire CIS." The reforms will get rid of 20 managers equal in status to ministers and more than one-half of the country's 1,270 deputy hokims, or regional administrative heads. The slimmed-down state bureaucracy will comprise 13 ministries, 11 state committees, nine agencies, three committees, seven centers, and seven inspectorates. DK

Belarusian prosecutors have instigated criminal proceedings against United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, accusing him of defaming President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on a Russian television channel, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 17 March. Lyabedzka is accused of slandering the Belarusian president in an interview he gave to Zerkalo television on 21 February, during an ongoing gas-supply row between Minsk and Moscow. Lyabedzka reportedly criticized Lukashenka for pursuing a shortsighted economic policy, maintaining a "shadow budget," and covering up the truth about political disappearances in Belarus. "[Lukashenka] needs censorship not only in the media but also among politicians," Lyabedzka told RFE/RL. "Naturally, [the charges against me] are connected with the activities of the Popular Coalition Five Plus." Lyabedzka's United Civic Party is a member of the Popular Coalition Five Plus, an opposition bloc seeking to field candidates in this fall's parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 16 March 2004). JM

President Lukashenka met with Russian State Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov in Minsk on 17 March, Belarusian Television reported. "If an impression has been formed [in Russia] that Belarus is opposing the course we have been pursuing together,... it is absolutely untrue," Lukashenka told Gryzlov. "We are following the same path that we chose 10 years ago, which leads not only to friendship but to unity with the Russian Federation and the formation of a union state." The same day, Gryzlov was elected to head the Belarusian-Russian Parliamentary Assembly. The assembly approved a draft budget for the Russia-Belarus Union that calls for the allocation of a combined 2.65 billion Russian rubles ($93 million) by the two governments for some 30 joint programs. JM

The Ukrainian Constitutional Court ruled on 18 March that the constitutional-reform bill that was preliminarily adopted on 24 December and amended on 3 February in the country's legislature (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 10 February 2004) does not contradict the Ukrainian Constitution, Interfax reported. The ruling paves the way for final passage of the reforms by the Verkhovna Rada, which would require at least 300 votes. The bill provides for shifting the balance of power from the presidency to the prime minister and parliament, and prescribes a proportional, party-list system and five-year terms for parliament from 2006. JM

In accordance with its constitutional prerogative, the Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution on 18 March setting the date of the country's presidential election as 31 October 2004, Interfax reported. JM

President Leonid Kuchma said in his annual message to the Verkhovna Rada distributed among deputies on 17 March that this year's presidential election should ensure continuity in the country's political and socioeconomic spheres, Ukrainian news agencies reported. "Acknowledging the inevitability of some correction in the state policies in accordance with the programmatic and ideological guidelines of a future president, it is necessary to do everything to secure continuity of the state course as an indispensable condition for maintaining positive achievements and strengthening favorable trends in the social development," Kuchma said. "I will do everything to hold the election of a new head of state in a civilized way [and] democratically, in full accordance with the legislation in force." JM

President Kuchma also said in his message to the Verkhovna Rada on 17 March that Ukraine's future party system should be based on several "powerful" parliamentary parties of a "European model," Ukrainian news agencies reported. According to the president, building an efficient party system should be a priority in the transformation of Ukraine into a more democratic state. Kuchma noted that the current party system in Ukraine is immature and weak, with parties reflecting the interests of business groups and part of the administration apparatus rather than those of the electorate. Kuchma proposed that lawmakers hold a parliamentary hearing on the formation of a "European" party system. He also called on the Verkhovna Rada to adopt a law on political opposition in Ukraine. JM

The North Atlantic Council decided in Brussels on 17 March to base NATO aircraft in Lithuania to defend Baltic airspace following the alliance's expansion, BNS reported. Denmark will initially send F-16s to Lithuania, later to be replaced on a rotating basis with jets from Belgium and the Netherlands, according to Belga news agency on 17 March. Reuters the same day cited diplomats as saying the deployments will each consist of four F-16s, with Norway providing air-traffic control. Zokniai airport, located near the northern Lithuanian city of Siauliai, was chosen to host the aircraft following an agreement by the three Baltic defense ministers in February that it would be the most suitable site to host fighter aircraft. However, the NATO fighters might temporarily be stationed at Vilnius airport because the airport at Zokniai is currently undergoing repairs. SG

Indulis Emsis said at a meeting in Riga with foreign ambassadors on 17 March that his cabinet's top priorities will be effective participation in the EU and NATO, fighting corruption, and the integration of Latvia's minorities, BNS reported. He said Latvia is proud that it will soon attain its goal of joining the EU and NATO "following 10 years of difficult and comprehensive reforms." Emsis also mentioned that Latvia's future accession to the two organizations will not disrupt its relations with other partners and regions, but rather will open new and previously unexplored avenues of opportunity for Latvia. SG

The leaders of 11 major political parties signed an agreement on 17 March to allocate at least 2 percent of the country's GDP to defense spending from 2005-08, BNS reported. This is an extension of a similar agreement signed in 2001 for the period 2001-04. As in the previous agreement, the funds can be disbursed to institutions other than the Defense Ministry that conduct defense-related activities. Among the signatories was Viktor Uspaskikh of the Labor Party, which did not exist when the first agreement was signed and avoided mention of NATO in its party platform. Uspaskikh reportedly arrived too late to participate in the 10 March vote to ratify the North Atlantic Treaty. SG

PAP reported on 17 March that some prominent politicians within the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) have already decided that Prime Minister Leszek Miller and his cabinet must go. Quoting anonymous sources, the agency suggested that Miller's cabinet might not survive until 1 May, when Poland joins the European Union. The same sources reportedly asserted that SLD politicians want Miller to represent the government during a visit to Poland next week by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and also at the EU summit in Brussels scheduled for 25-26 March. Polish media have also speculated recently that Sejm speaker Marek Borowski is planning to leave the SLD and create a new left-wing party. SLD Chairman Krzysztof Janik told journalists on 17 March that he is unaware of any such plans by Borowski. Borowski avoided a direct answer to the question of whether he wants to quit the SLD. JM

Polish State Railways (PKP) has set up an anticrisis team to step up security measures at stations and on trains, PAP reported on 17 March. "Attacks on the Moscow metro and on the Spanish railways prove that rail transport is a potential object of attack for terrorists," PKP said in an official statement. Prime Minister Miller, who visited the government's Center for Coordination, Rescue Operations, and Protection of the Population the same day, said authorities are prepared to minimize the effects of any potential terrorist attacks in Poland. Many in Poland, which leads an international division in Iraq, have expressed heightened fears following the 11 March bomb attacks in Madrid. JM

Deputy Defense Minister Janusz Zemke said on 17 March that NATO might invest nearly 2 billion zlotys ($515 million) in Poland, Polish Radio reported. Planned NATO investment projects reportedly include four command centers, fuel-storage facilities, the modernization and expansion of seven air bases, and the installation of six long-range radars. Zemke said the investments, apart from strengthening Poland's defense capabilities, will also stimulate local labor markets. Last month, U.S. Ambassador to Poland Christopher Hill said the possible relocation of NATO military resources to Poland would include "installations" and "structures" rather than full-scale bases (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2004). JM

A Warsaw district court sentenced communist-era Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak on 17 March to four years in prison for ordering police to fire on miners during the 1981 martial-law crackdown on Solidarity, Polish media reported, but immediately mitigated the punishment to a two-year suspended sentence in light of an amnesty. The ruling is subject to appeal. Kiszczak is the first senior communist-era official to be convicted of a crime in a Polish court. Kiszczak issued a coded instruction to police units on 12 December 1981 establishing principles for the use of firearms under martial law. Prosecutor claimed that the instruction led directly to the death of nine miners at the Wujek coal mine. JM

Eighty-one of 122 deputies in Slovakia's National Council voted on 17 March to approve an amendment to the law governing the intelligence community that generally prohibits those state bodies from employing representatives of the media, TASR reported the same day. However, deputies tacked on a last-minute clause that allows such state organs to use information from journalists in cases where the head of the Slovak Security Council (the prime minister, under Slovak law) has approved such steps. The amendment also bans those organizations from allowing their agents to pose as journalists. The legislation affects the Slovak Information Service (SIS) and the Slovak military-intelligence agency, the VOS. The cabinet had declined to take a position on the draft law, which was proposed by the governing Democratic and Christian Movement, the Hungarian Coalition Party, and the Alliance for a New Citizen, according to the daily "Sme." Much of the debate focused on the propriety of intelligence services seeking to influence public opinion through the media and journalists. AH

Investigators brought charges of embezzlement against opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia deputy Milan Rehak and independent lawmaker Igor Pinkava on 17 March, one week after the legislature voted to allow their prosecution, TASR reported. The allegations stem from the sales of apartments and garages in 1995-98, while both men were members of the Slovak National Property Fund's executive committee. Nine other former members of the same committee were accused of wrongdoing in the same case in early 2003. Rehak and Pinkava face up to 12 years in prison, if convicted. AH

In an official announcement released on 17 March, President Ferenc Madl set the date of Hungary's elections to the European Parliament for Sunday, 13 June, presidential press officer Erzsebet Schillinger told the MTI news agency. The date was proposed by the leaders of all four parliamentary parties, who discussed the matter with Madl on 10 February. The announcement effectively kicks off the election campaign in Hungary. Political parties that collect support from at least 20,000 eligible voters must apply for participation with the National Election Committee by 14 May, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 18 March. The European Parliament should include 24 Hungarian members after the June elections. MSZ

Twenty-two people died and at least 500 others were injured in interethnic violence in Mitrovica, Ferizaj, Peja, Lipjan, Prishtina, Prizren, Gjilan, Fushe Kosova, Caglavica, and some other Kosova communities on 17 March, regional and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004). Numerous homes and some Serbian religious buildings were reportedly damaged or burned out. The worst interethnic violence in several years erupted after two separate incidents in which a Serbian youth was injured in a drive-by shooting and at least two ethnic Albanian children drowned in the Ibar River. It is unclear whether any of the violence was organized. Flights in and out of Kosova were halted, and the border to Serbia was closed. PM

A tense calm prevailed in Mitrovica and elsewhere in Kosova early on 18 March, except for Obiliq, where a Serbian church and some other buildings were in flames, Reuters reported. NATO forces blocked the center of Obilic as well as the Prishtina-Mitrovica road with armored vehicles. Later, however, a crowd of Albanians in Mitrovica forced their way into a Serbian Orthodox church, setting it on fire. French peacekeepers attempted unsuccessfully to hold back the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. In Brussels, NATO ambassadors agreed to dispatch at least 700 troops from Bosnia, Italy, and the alliance's strategic reserves to reinforce the approximately 17,500 KFOR troops and 9,000 local and UN police in Kosova. Up to 150 U.S. troops from Bosnia and 80 Italian Carabinieri were sent immediately, and additional forces might follow if NATO commanders deem it necessary. In London, a Defense Ministry spokesman said Britain is prepared to send up to 750 troops to Kosova. PM

Speaking in Prishtina on 17 March, Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova called on "the citizens of Mitrovica to stop their protest so that the situation can calm down because the escalation of [violence] is not helpful for Kosova," RFE/RL reported. "I also call on the Serbian citizens of Caglavica to unblock the [Prishtina-Skopje] road and on the Albanians to withdraw from the Veternik area so that confrontation can be avoided," Rugova added. At the same press conference, Harry Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), said that "in moments like these, emotions are running high and that is why I...appeal to all communities to stay calm and not let such terrible incidents jeopardize the stability...[and] future of Kosovo." Local Serbian leader Momcilo Trajkovic said, "We are back in 1999," a reference to Albanian revenge attacks on Serbs following the withdrawal of Serbian forces in June of that year. Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi suggested that unnamed Belgrade politicians have recently fanned nationalist passions among Serbs. In Washington, Kosovar Albanian political leader Hashim Thaci broke off his visit to the United States to return to Kosova. PM

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade on 17 March that the violence in Kosova "showed the true face of Albanian separatism," the Serbian services of the BBC and Deutsche Welle reported. He noted, however, that there is no practical way to dispatch Serbian forces into Kosova to protect the Serbian minority there. Kostunica repeated his call for territorial autonomy for the Serbs, which the UNMIK and Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority reject (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 4 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2003 and 13 and 20 February 2004). Boris Tadic, who is Serbia and Montenegro's defense minister, said his country has a limited right under the terms set down in UN Security Council Resolution 1244 to send troops into the province, but he warned against any attempt to further inflame passions (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 29 August 2003). Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that is scheduled for 18 March. PM

In Belgrade on 17 March, a crowd that reportedly included drunken soccer hooligans burned out a mosque and broke some of the windows of the U.S. Embassy, regional and international media reported. Violence lasted through the night, leaving 33 police officers and an unspecified number of protesters injured. In Nis, a crowd burned a mosque. The next day, Nebojsa Covic, who is Belgrade's point man for Kosova, called the attacks on the mosques "ugly," Hina reported. He warned that "churches are not rebuilt by setting fire to mosques and vice versa." Covic warned, however, that "one must find new solutions which reflect the reality of life, which is that the Albanian community or individuals hate the Serbian community." Covic stressed: "Serbs and their property must be protected, and if the international community cannot do it, assistance must be sought. Our army and police together with the international community must do it." He also argued that the latest violence proves that "the concept of multiethnicity has failed." PM

In New York on 17 March, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an end to the violence in Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The U.S. State Department said in a statement that the violence could damage the fragile peace in the region. In a separate statement, the White House called on the people of Kosova to stop the violence, appealing to political leaders there to use their influence to bring an end to the violence and promote the peaceful resolution of problems. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that the unrest will benefit only the extremists. In Banja Luka, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dragan Mikerevic warned that unrest in Kosova could have a destabilizing effect on the entire region. In Moscow on 18 March, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Razov said, "We strongly condemn the instigators of the current riots in Kosovo and want [the riots] to be stopped immediately, since they may explode the situation both within the territory and in the entire region," ITAR-TASS reported. PM

The Central Committee of Macedonia's governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM) unanimously approved Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski as its presidential candidate on 17 March, A 1 TV reported. The SDSM's other potential candidate, Tito Petkovski, who reportedly had strong support from local party organizations, decided not to challenge Crvenkovski's bid. The extraordinary presidential election slated for 14 April was called because of President Boris Trajkovski's death in 26 February plane crash (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 February and 16 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 February and 5 March 2004). UB

Ten Romanians killed in the 11 March train bombings in Madrid were repatriated to Romania on 16 March, Romanian media reported. A religious ceremony was held in Bucharest upon the arrival of the bodies, which were transported from Spain by military aircraft. The number of Romanian citizens killed in the Madrid bombings now stands at 15, second only to Spanish losses in the attack. Seventeen Romanians remain hospitalized and three are missing. The Romanian government has decided to provide 300 million lei ($9,200) in compensation to each of the victim's families. Meanwhile, many Romanians lined up in front of the Foreign Commissariat in Madrid on 17 March to announce their eligibility following a Spanish government decree offering citizenship or residency rights to foreigners affected by the attacks and to their immediate families. ZsM

EU Ambassador to Romania Jonathan Scheele on 17 March said the EU is ready to help Romania in reforming the country's public administration, judicial system, and in combating corruption, but urged the country to speed up reforms, Mediafax reported. He said that criticisms contained in a recent European Parliament country report on Romania (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2004) should be considered as a guide to overcome existing problems. Scheele warned, however, that if Romanian reform efforts and negotiations with the EU are not accelerated, the country's accession process could be delayed. Meanwhile, Interior and Public Administration Minister Ioan Rus on 17 March said public-administration reform should focus on granting greater autonomy to local administrations, Romanian media reported. ZsM

The government's Security Council decided on 17 March to activate Bulgaria's foreign and military intelligence services in regions abroad that are considered hotbeds of terrorism, reported. The council, which includes Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski, Deputy Prime Minister Plamen Panayotov, Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov, Interior Minister Georgi Petkanov, and the heads of the country's secret services, also ordered Svinarov and Petkanov to work out proposals for tightening Bulgarian security. A government spokesman said after the session that the proposals must include measures to reinforce secret-service personnel, improve their technical equipment, and improve coordination among state institutions. Meanwhile, Nikolay Slatinski, President Georgi Parvanov's security adviser, said on 17 March that Bulgaria's security structure is inadequate in that it consists of a "collection of institutions" that lack strong coordination and integration, reported. UB

General Nikola Kolev, the Bulgarian Army's chief of General Staff, said on 17 March that the possible withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq could necessitate a revision of the tasks being performed by the Bulgarian contingent in Iraq, "Sega" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004). "For six months, we had one battalion for the whole Karbala province," Kolev said. "Now there is a second battalion that makes our tasks easier." Kolev speculated that "if Spain definitely decides to end its participation on 1 July and if there is no reinforcement from other countries, it is possible that the Bulgarian zone of responsibility will be increased." Meanwhile, Darik Radio reported that the Bulgarian military faces difficulties in recruiting volunteers for its next contingent in Iraq, which is to leave for Karbala in August (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004). UB

The Council on Electronic Media on 18 March dismissed Bulgarian National TV (BNT) head Kiril Gotsev by a vote of five to four, citing "gross and systematic violations" of the Radio and Television Act, reported. Gotsev was accused of allowing biased reporting on BNT broadcasts, among other irregularities. Gotsev said he will appeal his dismissal in court. The council named Borislav Gerontiev to serve as the acting director of BNT. Meanwhile, prosecutors formally began investigations on 12 March into a contract between BNT and the Russian advertising giant Video International that was signed by Gotsev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2004). UB

The Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) ( has recently presented an interesting and thought-provoking report called "Attitudes and Expectations: Public Opinion in Ukraine 2003," authored by Rakesh Sharma and Nathan Van Dusen. In particular, the report includes findings from a survey carried out by IFES in Ukraine among 1,265 respondents on 10-19 September and covering a wide range of issues related to Ukraine's progress toward a more democratic state. It was the 12th survey of this kind in Ukraine by IFES, which established its presence in Kyiv in 1994. The 2003 survey and report were made possible through a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The report, which provides a plethora of tables with survey findings, examines public attitudes and expectations in the following areas: confidence in government and judicial institutions, corruption, political and economic reform, interest in politics, attitudes toward political parties and nongovernmental organizations, contacts with local officials, and perceptions of media. It also provides a summary of regional and social variations of political attitudes in Ukraine.

The survey found that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians are either very dissatisfied (47 percent) or somewhat dissatisfied (38 percent) with the overall situation in the country. The current economic situation in Ukraine is assessed as bad or somewhat bad by 86 percent of respondents, while only 9 percent rate it as good.

IFES says its surveys since 2000 have shown a consistent preference for a market-driven economy over a centrally planned one. In 2003, 31 percent said they prefer a market economy, 21 percent a centrally planned economy, and 30 percent chose a neutral point in between. However, there are still large objections to privatization of key industries and sectors in Ukraine. The privatization of the electricity sector is opposed by 65 percent of Ukrainians, the coal industry by 59 percent, and collective farms by 45 percent.

Corruption is perceived as a major problem. A considerable majority of Ukrainians believes that that corruption is very serious or somewhat serious problem in hospitals (85 percent), the police (83 percent), universities (79 percent), courts (74 percent), customs authorities (67 percent), and tax authorities (66 percent).

Asked to choose five from a list of 10 statements or terms representing the meaning of democracy, respondents primarily pointed to human rights (66 percent), "everyone has work" (60 percent), "retirees are looked after by the state (55 percent), and "no official corruption" (48 percent). IFES registered a marked increase in the percentage of Ukrainians who say that Ukraine is not a democracy: 47 percent in 2001, 53 percent in 2002, and 64 percent in 2003.

One of the IFES findings is revealing in the context of the ongoing constitutional reform in Ukraine: 62 percent of Ukrainians are unaware of the existence of a bill, or bills, mandating constitutional amendments that would change the balance of power between the presidency and parliament, while a minority of 38 percent are aware of the issue.

The president is the least trusted among those institutions about which respondents were asked: 70 percent said they have little or no confidence in President Leonid Kuchma.

Only 23 percent of respondents say they support a specific political party, down from 31 percent in the 2002 survey. Of them, 30 percent support the Communist Party, 22 percent the Our Ukraine bloc, 10 percent the Social Democratic Party, 3 percent the Greens of Ukraine, 3 percent the Socialist Party, 2 percent the Popular Rukh, and 2 percent the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. The survey found that 16 percent of Ukrainians belong to trade unions.

Only 20 percent of Ukrainians are aware of the activities of NGOs in their communities, but this represents a significant increase compared with 12 percent in 2002.

For the first time in its surveys in Ukraine, IFES registered that more Ukrainians than not say that they have a great deal or fair amount of information on both political and economic developments (58 percent on politics; 48 percent on economy). Television, particularly private stations, is the major source of news and information for most Ukrainians. Respondents listed the following media outlets as their primary information sources: Inter (33 percent), 1+1 Channel (23 percent), Ukrainian newspapers (5 percent), UT-1 (5 percent), UT-2 (3 percent), UR-1 (5 percent), ORT (3 percent), New Channel (2 percent), and local television stations (2 percent). The media are mostly rated positively by Ukrainians: 7 percent of respondents have a great deal of confidence in the media, 54 percent have a fair amount, 20 percent do not have too much confidence, and 6 percent have no confidence at all. Ukrainians also perceive journalism as a risky profession: 68 percent think it is dangerous for journalists to report the news objectively, while 20 percent feel that journalists are safe in doing that.

Seven armed men were killed in a large-scale operation conducted by U.S.-led coalition forces in the Ata Ghar District of Zabul Province, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 18 March. According to unnamed sources in Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul, the armed men were loyalists of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime. Fifteen armed men have been reported apprehended in the operations. Afghan officials in Zabul and neighboring Kandahar Province believe that neo-Taliban forces have been using Ata Ghar as a base for launching sporadic attacks in the two provinces. The coalition forces are said to be heading for the nearby Mizan District. Zabul Deputy Governor Mohammad Omar estimated in February that around 400 militants had gathered near the Mizan and Ata Ghar districts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2003). AT

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai conceded on 17 March that Afghan elections scheduled for June might be delayed, international news agencies reported. Speaking at a news conference alongside visiting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Karzai said 8 million voters should be registered by the end of May. But with just 1.5 million voters registered so far, only a massive effort by the UN would allow registration of the remaining 6.5 million to meet that target. "If this is done on time by the United Nations," Karzai said, "the Afghan government is keen to have elections in June, July, or in August -- depending on the preparations for elections," "The Washington Post" reported on 18 March. "I think if they can get up to 8 or 9 million people to register, you have got proper representation of total population," Powell said, adding, "Whether it's June or July or August remains to be seen.... I don't think it's a significant difference, as long as it's done well and seems honest, fair, and effective." 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

Sebghatullah Sanjar, the head of the recently established Republican Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-e Jamhuri Khwahan-e Afghanistan), said his party supports the upcoming elections despite choosing not to put forth a candidate for the presidency, "Kabul Weekly" reported on 17 March. Sanjar said the lack of a Republican candidate "should not be misconstrued as meaning we do not want to participate in the elections." Citing remarks by presidential candidate and former Afghan Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq suggesting that he has been discouraged from running (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004), "Kabul Weekly" asked Sanjar whether he has been threatened; he replied that neither he or other members of his "party have been threatened so far." Sanjar said that unless all eligible Afghan voters are registered, "the elections will risk being perceived as flawed." Five political parties have so far been registered with the Afghan Justice Ministry. AT

Sayyed Ishaq Gailani, leader of the Afghanistan National Solidarity Movement (Da Afghanistan da Melli Paiwatun Nahzat) accused the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) of unfair interference in the registration process, "Kabul Weekly" reported on 17 March. Gailani said registration centers have been instructing people to vote for Karzai. He also suggested that UNAMA has effectively been stumping for the Afghan leader by announcing that voter-registration figures have risen sharply since Karzai's own registration in January. "I think such publicity is not the duty of a UNAMA spokesman," Gailani claimed. "Besides, the people who have taken voting cards have been told that their cards will be bought for 100 U.S. dollars, which is tantamount to betraying Afghanistan and its people." Gailani answered in the negative when asked whether he has been threatened. He said that while the government has not been an obstacle in his path, "all candidates should have equal access to the public.... Government offices should not be used to obtain votes from the people." If the elections are delayed until all Afghans have registered, "it will be to the country's benefit," Gailani added. AT

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said in 17 March meetings with President George W. Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that Washington should consider discussing nuclear issues with Tehran, Reuters and AP reported. "Clearly, it is an idea that they will have to mull over," he told reporters afterward, according to the agencies. El-Baradei added that the U.S. officials told him that June is "an important deadline" for Tehran to come clean on its clandestine nuclear program, "The New York Times" reported on 18 March. El-Baradei urged Bush to help get Islamabad to give IAEA inspectors access. This would enable them to take samples of Pakistani nuclear material and compare it with samples taken in Iran. Also on 17 March, el-Baradei told the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia that the IAEA has not seen any evidence that Iran is building a nuclear bomb but he has not excluded the possibility, Reuters reported. "The jury's still out," el-Baradei said. BS

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami announced on 17 March that he is withdrawing proposed legislation that would have increased presidential powers vis-a-vis those of unelected institutions, state television, IRNA, and AP reported. The parliament has passed the legislation, which was introduced in September 2002, but it has been rejected several times by the Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation on Islamic and constitutional grounds. Khatami expressed concern that the incoming conservative parliament might use the bill to reduce presidential powers. Khatami criticized the Guardians Council's frequent rejection of reformist legislation and conceded his weakness under current circumstances. "The people should know that, according to certain dignitaries, the president is no longer the second figure after the supreme leader charged with upholding the constitution and defending the rights of the people," he said, according to IRNA. "They downgraded the president as an official in charge of logistic affairs of the system." Khatami apologized to the Iranian people, Mehr News Agency reported. BS

President Khatami said after the 17 March cabinet session that he does not approve of the recent spate of court summonses issued to members of parliament, Mehr News Agency and Reuters reported. Some 11 legislators have received summonses this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004). "I have negotiated with my brother Ayatollah [Mahmud Hashemi-] Shahrudi [who heads the judiciary], and I know that he is trying to improve the situation," Khatami said. "I call on him to intervene and stop some motives in the judiciary." Tuiserkan parliamentary representative Mohsen Tarkashvand said on 17 March that he believes the summonses are the result of a conservative grudge that dates back to the beginning of the reform movement, ILNA reported. In defense of his colleagues, he said, "All those who have been summoned to the court are people who have spent time in prison during the time of the shah as well as long periods on the war front." Tarkashvand predicted that the conservatives will go after cabinet ministers and provincial governors next. BS

The State Inspectorate Organization announced on 17 March that negligence is the "main cause" of the February train derailment in Nishabur, state television reported. The initial derailment of rail cars loaded with cotton, fertilizer, sulfur, and gasoline set off fires and small explosions, but most of the 300 fatalities occurred when a massive explosion killed firemen and observers who had rushed to the scene (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 February and 1 March 2004). The inspectorate's report attributed the high number of casualties to permitting public access prior to determining that the danger had passed, and it recommended that the Khorasan Province Justice Ministry investigate negligent officials and that the government should pay damages to the victims. The report added that the roads and transport minister, as well as the railway's board of governors and managing director, should be held accountable. BS

A two-day meeting of the Caspian working group comprising deputy foreign ministers of the five Caspian littoral states (Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) took place in Baku on 16-17 March, Russian and Azerbaijani agencies and IRNA reported. The session -- the 13th round of such talks -- succeeded in coordinating several more paragraphs of a draft convention defining the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Addressing participants, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Guliev said he believes agreement on the sea's status can be reached through "constructive compromises and in conformity with international law," ITAR-TASS reported. He welcomed the resumption of talks, suspended two years ago, between Baku and Ashgabat on delineating their respective sectors of the sea on the basis of the median line. But Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari denounced the bilateral and trilateral agreements signed in recent years between Russia and Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan, and those three states on delineating their respective sectors of the sea, IRNA reported. Safari said Tehran will not recognize such agreements as legal until all five states reach agreement on the sea's status, and that Iran continues to demand that the sea be divided into five more or less equal sectors, giving Iran 20.4 percent. Safari further demanded that the Caspian be demilitarized, saying the presence in the region of foreign troops "only complicates the matter." LF

Militants detonated a car bomb outside a small hotel in central Baghdad on 17 March, killing seven people and wounding 35, Reuters reported on 18 March. The U.S. military said on 17 March that the bombing of the Mount Lebanon hotel appears to be the work of the Ansar Al-Islam terrorist organization, which has been linked to Al-Qaeda. U.S. Colonel Ralph Baker told CNN on 17 March that it is believed that the automobile used in the attack was carrying about 455 kilograms of plastic explosives and artillery shells mixed with explosives to cause the greatest number of injuries. Iraqis and Arab businessmen reportedly frequented the hotel, according to international media. Reuters reported that two British civilians were injured in the blast, and both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah television stations reported that a number of U.S. civilians were wounded in the attack. Western media did not confirm the latter claims, however. Husayn Ali Kamal, the Iraqi Interior Ministry's undersecretary for Baghdad police and security, on 17 March disputed the high casualty figures, telling Al-Jazeera that five people were killed and 40 injured. KR

An apparent car bomb detonated in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah on 18 March, killing at least five civilians, international media reported. The vehicle detonated outside the Mirbad Hotel, located in the city center and used by British military and civil administration officials for press briefings. A civil administration official in Iraq's second city told Reuters that the hotel was popular with both Iraqis and foreigners and was considered one of the most secure in the city. British military officials said it was not known whether the car exploded as a result of a car bomb or an improvised explosive device placed in the road. Iraqi police said four men and one boy were killed in the bombing. Elsewhere in Iraq, militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at the municipal-council building in Al-Fallujah on 18 March. Reuters reported that a gun battle with U.S. forces ensued, and one man and child were caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, in Ba'qubah, militants attacked a minibus carrying employees of a U.S.-funded local Diyala television channel, killing three and wounding eight, the news agency reported. KR

Iraqi Governing Council President for the month of March Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum on 17 March sent a letter on behalf of the Governing Council to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan requesting he send a UN team to Baghdad to help Iraqis form a transitional government and prepare for direct national elections by January 2005, international media reported on 18 March. Iraqi Governing Council spokesman Hamid al-Kifa'i confirmed to AP that the letter was sent to Annan on 17 March, but Annan told reporters the same day he had not yet received it. Reuters reported this week that a number of Shi'ite members of the Iraqi Governing Council are opposed to the return of the UN to Iraq, and have particularly expressed reservations about working with UN special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 18 March 2004). KR

Iraqi Governing Council member Mahmud Uthman told Baghdad's "Al-Ittihad" of 17 March that in the event Spain withdraws its 1,300 troops from Iraq, it would not greatly affect the security situation in Iraq. Uthman added that security in Iraq can only be achieved by Iraqis themselves. His comments came in the wake of Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's vow to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq in absence of a UN mandate, which has led to speculation that other countries will follow suit. Slovak Defense Minister Juraj Liska said on 17 March that his government will not withdraw its forces from Iraq, where it currently has 100 soldiers stationed. Honduras announced on 16 March that it will not seek authorization from lawmakers to keep its troops in Iraq past the 30 June deadline for the transfer of power, ACAN-EFE press agency reported the same day. Honduras has 370 soldiers in Iraq. KR

The website of the Persian Gulf daily "Akhbar al-Khalij" ( reported on 17 March that a number of Iraqi "resistance" factions have formed a new organization called the National Front for the Liberation of Iraq (NFLI). The website claims that it received a statement from the group announcing its "single aim of liberating Iraq from U.S.-British colonialism." The group threatened attacks against what it called traitors of the homeland and those who collaborate with the occupation forces. It also threatened to attack all coalition partners inside Iraq. More than 25 factions have reportedly joined the NFLI. KR