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Newsline - August 3, 2004

The government on 2 August announced another tax probe into embattled oil giant Yukos, this one covering the year 2002, "The Moscow Times" and other Russian media reported on 3 August. Yukos spokesman Aleksandr Shadrin confirmed to the daily that the Tax Ministry has requested the company's financial records for 2002. ITAR-TASS reported on 2 August that the probe could add a further $3 billion to Yukos's tax debt, bringing its total arrears to more than $10 billion. Yukos shares rose about 16 percent on 2 August following widespread media reports that former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretian had offered to mediate the dispute between Yukos and the government. Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP) President Arkadii Volskii told NTV on 2 August that he does not believe that international mediation would be useful in the resolving the Yukos crisis. "I do not believe the Foreign Ministry or the Russian government are susceptible to pressure," Volskii said. "I do believe that common sense sooner or later must gain the upper hand." RC

Former Economy Minister Yevgenii Yasin, writing in "Vedomosti" on 30 July, argued that the case against Yukos was pursued for both political and economic ends. He said that "the presented accusations were just a pretext" and that the purpose of the onslaught was to thwart the political ambitions of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii and to carve up Yukos, which was "too choice a morsel" for the Kremlin to resist. Yasin argued that after the public endorsed the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in the December 2003 Duma elections and President Vladimir Putin in the March presidential poll despite Khodorkovskii's October arrest, the Kremlin "decided to solve the economic problem -- to take away property." "Relying on the special services, the prosecutor's office, and the courts -- which are already built into a 'vertical chain of command' and which, it seems, are obedient to their will -- [the authorities] can bankrupt any company, perhaps without even having to resort to any legal loopholes," Yasin wrote. He concluded his commentary by saying that the government's actions have made him afraid and that "it seems to me that this is exactly what they want from us." RC

Government guidelines signed by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov on 28 July postpone President Putin's stated goal of doubling Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) from 2010 to 2014, Prime-TASS reported on 2 August. Excerpts from the new guidelines were released to the public on 2 August. In order to achieve the goal by 2014, Russia must achieve average annual GDP growth of 7-8 percent. The new guidelines call upon business to help the government meet its targets and promise that the government will create "clear and transparent" rules for business. The guidelines call on the Central Bank to tighten control of the banking sector and to accelerate the adoption of international accounting standards. The government also undertakes to complete negotiations for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) as soon as possible and to bring Russian legislation into conformity with WTO standards. RC

The Justice Ministry on 3 August declared that a July congress by a splinter group of the Communist Party was illegitimate, reported (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 2 and 7 July 2004). Deputy Justice Minister Yevgenii Sidorenko told journalists that the "status quo in the leadership of the Communist Party is preserved," and Gennadii Zyuganov remains the party's leader. Sidorenko said the ministry uncovered falsifications in the documents submitted by the splinter group's congress, including falsified papers about how many party Central Committee members attended the rival congress. "We came to the conclusion that there was not a quorum at that congress," Sidorenko said. "The Justice Ministry's decision was absolutely correct and the only just one," Communist Party spokesman Andrei Andreev told RIA-Novosti on 3 August. "We had no doubts about that." RC

Center for Political Forecasting General Director Konstantin Simonov told "Trud" on 30 July that because civil society in Russia is just developing and political parties are still forming, the executive branch has taken on responsibility for determining the direction of the country. Therefore, he said, no political opposition is possible. "Under the conditions of massive modernization, what is needed from the opposition is not the proposal of alternative projects for the development of the country, but attentive control over what the executive branch is doing," Simonov said. He said the ideal opposition in Russia would be an "oversight" opposition that compels the executive branch to keep its promises in mind. RC

Moscow police on 2 August arrested about 40 men who were attempting to rampage through the Petrovsko-Razumovskii market,, Interfax, and other Russian media reported. The men were among an estimated 100 men who entered the market with the apparent intention of beating up people from the Caucasus, police said. No one was reported injured in the incident. The rioters were celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the Airborne Forces, and police identified most of them as former paratroopers. A police spokesman said that most of those arrested were heavily inebriated, the website reported. RIA-Novosti reported that one man was injured when about 20 men began fighting near the entrance to Moscow's Gorkii Park. Police, however, reportedly declined to intervene in that incident. A police spokesman told the news agency that "the celebration is proceeding as usual." RC

Hundreds of people gathered near the State Duma building on 2 August to protest against planned changes in the system for providing social benefits, Ekho Moskvy reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 July 2004). The event was organized by the Communist Party, and former presidential candidate and State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov addressed the crowd. Communist Party leader Zyuganov estimated that the crowd's size reached 5,000, although the police put the figure at 600, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 3 August. Interfax reported the number of protestors as 600, and Ekho Moskvy as 1,500-2,000. NTV reported on 2 August that police "were compelled to use force" against activists from left-wing youth organizations who were participating in the rally. According to NTV, similar protests were also held in Vladivostok and Blagoveshchensk. The Pensioners Party also organized protests in Tula, Kaluga, Vladimir, and Rostov oblasts, Interfax reported. JAC

About 30 activists from the ultranationalist National Bolshevik Party occupied several offices in the main building of the Health and Social Development Ministry on 2 August to protest the benefits bill, according to AP. The activists managed to seize several offices from which they hung a flag, shouted slogans, and threw portraits of President Putin out of the window, according to the agency and Radio Rossii. One of the activists told Ekho Moskvy that they had taken over the office of Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov. JAC

State Duma deputies voted on 2 August to adopt a bill in its second reading amending the Budget Code, RIA-Novosti reported. The amendments redefine financial responsibilities among the various levels of government. The bill, if enacted, would amend more than 150 legislative acts, according to "Vremya novostei" on 3 August. More than 5,000 amendments were considered, 1,000 of which were recommended for adoption. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on the same day, the "chief intrigue" of the bill in its second reading was a struggle by the Finance Ministry to liquidate the regional treasuries. When the Duma's Budget Committee objected, the ministry compromised and suggested that all budgets be serviced by the federal treasury after 1 January 2006. And regions that want to keep their own treasuries will first have to conclude an agreement with the federal center. In a televised meeting with President Putin, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov noted that "there are regions that are likely to lose money in the beginning, because the distribution of the resources among regions is unequal. However, we envisage [revenue] in the draft budget for 2005 will cover the gaps that might appear in the budgets of certain regions." The third reading of the bill is scheduled for 5 August, according to RIA-Novosti. JAC

Deputies voted on 31 July to approve a bill in its first reading that would make it harder for regional executives and legislators to dismiss their Federation Council representatives, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 2 August. The vote was 321 in favor with 64 against and four abstentions, RosBalt reported. According to the daily, Federation Council members may be dismissed before their terms expire for the same reasons as State Duma deputies: a government appointment, a written resignation, loss of citizenship, or a court decision. Communist State Duma Deputy Anatolii Lokot objected to the bill, saying "Doesn't it seem to you that we are slowly but surely moving toward the creation of a House of Lords?" Former Federation Council member and Communist State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kondratenko spoke in favor of the election of Federation Council members. He noted, "More than 70 percent of Federation Council [members] are Muscovites. Is this really federalism in action? How can [Federation Council member for Novgorod Oblast Gennadii] Burbulis represent his territory, which he doesn't know?" JAC

The bill also stipulates that regional legislatures must confirm a new representative to the chamber within three months of the election of a new legislature or governor, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 2 August. The governors of Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and Khabarovsk and Volgograd oblasts have not sent representatives for almost a year, according to RosBalt. According to Deputy Chairwoman of the Federation Council Svetlana Orlova, 131 of the 178 members of the Federation Council have changed since the new rules for forming the upper legislative chamber came into effect on 1 January 2002. JAC

In an interview with "Rodnaya gazeta," No. 29, political analyst Viktor Gushchin said that the percentage of votes "against all" candidates in the December 2003 State Duma elections exceeded the 5 percent barrier needed to enter the State Duma. By the Central Election Commission's tally, the figure was 3.45 percent. According to Gushchin, the number of single-mandate districts in which "against all" was one of the top four choices has been steadily rising in recent years. In 1995, "against all" was one of the leading choices in only 69 of 225 districts; by 1999, this number had risen to 170, and it reached 205 in 2003. In the 2003 race, "against all" finished in first place in eight districts. In Ulyanovsk Oblast, "against all" finished as the victor twice: first in 2003 and later the next year during a repeat election. JAC

Three unknown assailants carjacked Tyumen Mayor Stepan Kirichuk and his Toyota Land Cruiser late in the evening of 1 August, Regnum reported on 3 August. According to a press release from the mayoral administration, the car thieves did not initially realize the driver of the car was the city's mayor. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 3 August, the thieves dumped Kirichuk in a local forest after figuring out his identity, and he summoned local police on his mobile phone. Toyota Land Cruisers are popular targets among car thieves, according to Regnum. A week ago, the same make and model was stolen from the head of one of the city's television companies. JAC

An "interview" with Ambassador Steven Mann, the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, circulated by Regnum on 26 July "did not actually occur," Turan on 30 July quoted an unnamed official at the U.S. Embassy in Baku as saying. The information contained in that interview "is not factual," the official continued. Mann was quoted as saying that the public in both Armenia and Azerbaijan is resolutely opposed to resolving the Karabakh conflict by means of compromise, but that the leaders of the two countries should abjure emotions and embark on the search for a solution (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 August 2004). LF

In a video interview, a transcript of which was posted on 1 August on, Aslan Maskhadov, who is commander of the Chechen resistance forces, announced that after five years of war that have exhausted the population of Chechnya, he has decided to expedite an end to hostilities by "driving out the enemy, and if he is reluctant to leave, by expanding the war onto his territory." Both Russian and German commentators have construed that formulation as meaning Chechen strikes against targets elsewhere in the Russian Federation outside Chechnya, which Maskhadov previously vetoed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2003 and 19 February 2004). Maskhadov said his forces now number far more than the 2,500-3,000 needed to conduct guerrilla operations. As the rationale for the June raids into Ingushetia, he cited Russian forces' recourse to reprisals against the local population. Maskhadov characterized Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, who is regarded as the Kremlin's choice to be installed as pro-Moscow administration head by means of elections to be held on 29 August, as not competent to head a rural district council, and predicted that if Alkhanov is elected it will be only a matter of time before divine retribution catches up with him as it did with his predecessor, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.

Russian military spokesmen claimed on 31 July to have thwarted a planned terrorist atrocity in the Daghestan town of Kizlyar, Russian media reported. Russian Interior Ministry forces stormed a building in the town on the evening of 30 July, killing three members of a Nogai militant battalion and detaining two others, Russian media reported, quoting Daghestan's Interior Minister Adilgirei Magomedtagirov. But reported on 3 August that the militants held an unspecified number of elite Russian special troops hostage for 10 hours. The Nogais are one of the smallest of Daghestan's 14 official nationalities, and constitute less than 10 percent of the republic's population of 500,000. LF

Two leading representatives of the opposition Artarutiun bloc rejected on 2 August as "illegitimate" and cosmetic a package of constitutional amendments proposed by President Robert Kocharian and endorsed by the pro-government parliament majority on 20 July, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 July 2004). Those amendments are a slightly modified version of a package that failed to win popular support in a referendum last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May 2003). Hanrapetutiun party chairman and former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian argued that Kocharian's leadership is illegitimate -- an allusion to the opposition's rejections of the outcome of the flawed presidential and parliamentary ballots in February-March and May 2003 -- and therefore does not have the right to make constitutional changes. Viktor Dallakian, a leading member of Artarutiun, similarly branded Kocharian an "unelected president." Dallakian said that putting the new version of the proposed amendments to a referendum is "immoral." Both men said that Artarutiun has not yet formulated a common position with the opposition National Unity Party on continued government overtures to the opposition to join in the process of constitutional reform. LF

Elmar Mammadyarov traveled to Tehran on 31 July-1 August for talks with his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi and with President Mohammad Khatami on the final preparations for Khatami's long-awaited visit to Azerbaijan, which is to take place on 5-6 August, Turan reported. Diplomats say between eight and 10 bilateral agreements are to be signed during that visit, including a declaration on friendship and cooperation and one on construction of a highway and rail link within the framework of the North-South transport corridor. According to on 3 August, Mammadyarov raised with his Iranian opposite number the issue of Tehran's continued refusal to make good on an agreement signed in the mid-1990s under which an Azerbaijani consulate is to be opened in Tabriz (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 1997, 25 March 1998, and 21 May 2002). On 2 August, Turan quoted Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov as telling journalists in Baku that some Iranian journalists misconstrued comments Mammadyarov made concerning Iran's estimated 30 million Azerbaijani minority. LF

A spokesperson for Georgia's Ministry for Environmental Protection and Natural Resources said on 2 August that the National Security Council has not yet ruled on whether construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export pipeline for Caspian oil may be resumed, Caucasus Press reported. Construction was halted due to ecological concerns on 21 July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 July 2004), but Minister for Environmental Protection Tamar Lebanidze stated on 23 July that work would resume within two weeks. On 30 July, Lebanidze said work will resume within one week, Caucasus Press reported the same day. On 27 July, an executive for the British Petroleum subsidiary that is managing the pipeline construction told journalists that the route will not be changed, Caucasus Press reported. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones discussed the possible delay in commissioning the pipeline during talks in Baku on 29 July with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and in Tbilisi two days later with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). On 28 July, Georgia's Ministry of State Security deployed special troops to the predominantly Armenian-populated village of Tabatsquri, through which the pipeline is routed, Caucasus Press reported on 2 August. Tabatsquri residents have threatened to prevent a resumption of construction work on the pipeline to protest the nonpayment of compensation awarded in June by the Georgian Supreme Court. LF

Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin argued on 2 August that Georgia's threat to renege on the August 1992 agreement ending fighting in South Ossetia constitutes a violation of the paragraph of the Geneva Conventions that bars any state from unilaterally withdrawing from such a multilateral agreement, ITAR-TASS reported. Loshchinin also said the recent fighting in South Ossetia constitutes a setback for peace talks and could escalate into a new armed confrontation. He called on Tbilisi to comply with its commitment made in mid-June to withdraw its superfluous Interior Ministry troops from the conflict zone. Loshchinin further called for the immediate resumption of talks with the South Ossetian leadership. LF

Solomon Pasi, the OSCE chairman in office and Bulgarian foreign minister, issued a statement in Sofia on 30 July again expressing concern over the deteriorating situation in South Ossetia. Pasi reaffirmed his readiness to host high-level talks in Sofia on approaches to resolving the conflict, and called on both sides to implement the decisions taken at the mid-June meeting of the Joint Control Commission, including the withdrawal of unauthorized police personnel from the conflict zone. On 31 July, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement rejecting as unworkable a proposal unveiled by Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili on 29 July at the Vienna meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council. The proposal suggested that the OSCE mandate in South Ossetia be expanded to allow OSCE personnel to monitor cargoes entering the unrecognized republic, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

U.S. General John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev, and other senior officials on 2 August during a visit to Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Khabar Television reported. Abizaid stressed Washington's commitment to regional security and noted the joint U.S.-Kazakh efforts in combating terrorism and ensuring border security. Kazakh officials briefed Abizaid on their plans for greater cooperation with NATO and discussed the U.S. desire for an expansion of bilateral military and security relations. Abizaid said that the United States "values the role that Kazakhstan plays in stabilizing" the region and expressed appreciation for the deployment of Kazakh troops to Iraq. A ceremony was also held in Astana where a number of Kazakh troops returning from Iraq were awarded special commendations by the U.S. Army general. Abizaid is on a regional tour and has also met with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 30 July 2004). RG

Opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan Deputy Chairman Muhiddin Kabiri condemned the 29 July attack on the editor of the independent "Ruzi Nav" weekly newspaper, Avesta reported on 2 August. The editor, Rajab Mirzo, was injured in an attack by an unknown assailant in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Kabiri denounced the attack as a "signal" in advance of parliamentary elections and linked the Tajik authorities' lack of "interest" in the incident to Mirzo's investigative reporting. The OSCE office in Dushanbe has also condemned the attack on the journalist, according to Asia Plus-Blitz and RFE/RL's Tajik Service. RG

Responding on 2 August to the recent criticism by the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Dushanbe administration official Shavkat Saidov dismissed any suggestion of state involvement in the unsolved 29 July attack on the editor of the independent "Ruzi Nav" newspaper, Avesta reported. Saidov instead pointed to unnamed "third forces" as being responsible for the attack on the journalist, adding that such an attack would serve those that seek to portray Tajikistan as an "undemocratic state" that "hampers freedom of speech." Saidov also suggested that the attack was not related to the journalist's investigative reporting but must have been of a "personal nature." An official of the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office announced on 2 August that the official investigation is continuing, with officials having conducted preliminary witness interviews and forensic tests, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. RG

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov met with visiting Iranian Energy Minister Habibollah Bitaraf in Dushanbe on 2 August to discuss plans for expanding bilateral cooperation in the energy sector and over the use of water resources, Asia Plus-Blitz and Tajik Television reported. The Tajik president also reviewed plans to begin construction of the Sangtuda hydroelectric power station in southern Tajikistan. Interest in the Sangtuda project has largely been driven by Russia's Unified Energy Systems, which seeks to form a new consortium comprising Russia, Tajikistan, and Iran to build the facility. The nearly $483 million project hopes to export the electricity produced by the Sangtuda plant to neighboring countries (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 15 June 2004). President Rakhmonov is reportedly demanding over $2 billion in investment in the Tajik energy sector over five years before the project becomes fully operational. RG

Unnamed officials in the Uzbek Interior Ministry announced on 2 August that security forces have made "several arrests" as part of the official investigation into the 30 July suicide bombing attacks in Tashkent, Interfax reported. Uzbek Interior Minister Zokirjon Almatov was quoted on 1 August by ITAR-TASS as revealing that at least one of the suicide bombers has been identified. The recent bombings, which targeted the U.S and Israeli embassies and the Prosecutor-General's Office in the Uzbek capital, have been attributed to the outlawed extremist Hizb ut-Tahrir organization by the Uzbek authorities. The group, however, has refuted the charge and another group, the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has claimed responsibility for the attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). RG

The Belarusian Supreme Court annulled on 2 August the registration of the Labor Party, a component of the opposition election coalition Five Plus (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 20 July 2004), RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. In banning the Labor Party, the court supported the Justice Ministry's charges that the party did not possess a legal address, held an illegitimate congress, and committed irregularities during the registration of some of its local structures. "I think this is the beginning of the liquidation of opposition political parties," Labor Party head Alyaksandr Bukhvostau told RFE/RL. "But this decision won't stop us. We will take part in the election campaign [for the 17 October parliamentary vote]." JM

Several radio stations in Minsk told Belapan on 2 August that they have been "unofficially ordered" not to include compositions by several popular rock groups on their playlists under any pretext. The blacklisted artists include the rock bands Neuro Dubel, N.R.M., Palats, and Drum Ecstasy, as well as singer Zmitser Vaytsyushkevich. Neuro Dubel front man Alyaksandr Kulinkovich linked the ban to his band's performance during the 21 July opposition rally to mark Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's decade in power, which ended in the arrest of dozens of people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 23 July 2004). JM

The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found in a poll conducted from 19-27 July that if a presidential election had been held on 1 August, 62.9 percent of voters would have participated in it, Interfax reported. Of those declaring their intent to go to the polls, 29.9 percent would have voted for Our Ukraine opposition-bloc leader Viktor Yushchenko, while Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych would have been backed by 25.2 percent of voters, Communist Party leader Symonenko by 8.8 percent, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz by 6 percent, and Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Party leader Anatoliy Kinakh by 2.1 percent. In comparison with a similar poll held by the same pollster one month earlier, Yanukovych's poll rating rose by 5 percentage points, while Yushchenko's remained the same. JM

The Central Election Commission on 2 August registered Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko as the 23rd candidate for the 31 October presidential ballot, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Last week the Central Election Commission ceased accepting applications for the registration of new presidential candidates. The commission still has to consider more than a dozen such applications. JM

The first deputy commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Ihor Kabanenko, denied on 2 August media reports alleging that the Ukrainian fleet deployed in Sevastopol will be relocated to Novoozerne near Yevpatoria, Interfax reported. "These reports do not correspond with reality and are of a provocative character," Kabanenko said. Some Ukrainian media have quoted a statement by the Ukrainian Sevastopol Public Committee saying that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have reached agreement on the withdrawal of Ukrainian naval ships from Sevastopol and their transfer to the Donuzlav base in northwestern Crimea. JM

On 2 August, known locally as St. Elijah's Day or Ilinden, Macedonian government delegations marked the 60th anniversary of the launching of the World War II Antifascist Council for the National Liberation of Macedonia (ASNOM) in the southern Serbian Prohor Pcinjski Monastery, at a new memorial center in the nearby village of Pelince on the Macedonian side of the border, and in the central Macedonian town of Krusevo, Macedonian media reported. This date is widely accepted as the founding date of the modern Macedonian state because ASNOM hammered out the political and legal framework for the People's (later Socialist) Republic of Macedonia within communist Yugoslavia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 July and 1 August 2003 and 30 July 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 August 2002). Despite ongoing differences between the Macedonian and Serbian Orthodox churches, a Macedonian delegation headed by President Branko Crvenkovski laid wreaths on 2 August outside the Prohor Pcinjski Monastery, where ASNOM met in 1944. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica led a Serbian delegation to the ceremony. Macedonian Prime Minister Hari Kostov attended a ceremony in Krusevo, where anti-Ottoman insurgents founded a short-lived republic in 1903. Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva marked the anniversary with members of the ethnic Macedonian minority in the Golloborda region of Albania near the Macedonian border at Debar, reassuring them of the Macedonian government's support. UB

Former Bosnian Croat General Tihomir Blaskic arrived in Zagreb from The Hague on 2 August after being released early from a recently reduced sentence, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 July 2004). He said that he wants to go to the village of Ahmici near Vitez in central Bosnia to pay his respects to the Muslim victims of the 1993 massacre, in connection with which he had originally been charged with war crimes but was subsequently acquitted. Blaskic added that he "forgives" the Croatian authorities under late President Franjo Tudjman, who failed to give the tribunal important evidence exonerating Blaskic of responsibility for the massacre. The former general said that the Croatian authorities simply did what they thought they had to do under the circumstances. Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service noted recently that the Tudjman-era leadership might have viewed Blaskic as a convenient scapegoat. A Bosnian rather than a Herzegovinian Croat, he was not part of the ultranationalist Herzegovinian circles close to Tudjman. Neither the Croatian nor Herzegovinian authorities ever gave him a medal, but the Bosnian government awarded him the Order of the Golden Lily for his achievements in campaigns against the Serbs. PM

The Hague-based war crimes tribunal ruled on 2 August that six former officials of the Herzegovinian Croat para-state Herceg-Bosnia, who voluntarily arrived there in April, will return home soon pending their trial, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Former Generals Slobodan Praljak and Milivoj Petkovic, former Prime Minister Jadranko Prlic, former Defense Minister Bruno Stojic, former military police chief Valentin Coric, and Berislav Pusic, who was in charge of prisoners, all maintain their innocence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 5 April 2004). PM

The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) is for the first time since September 1999 trailing an opposition formation, the dailies "Adevarul," "Evenimentul zilei," and "Jurnalul national" reported on 3 August. According to an opinion poll carried out by IMAS polling institute on behalf of the PSD, the ruling party was backed by 35.9 percent of respondents while the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party alliance was supported by 42.2 percent. According to the IMAS poll, the Greater Romania Party (PRM) is in third place with 11 percent and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) is fourth, with support of 5.1 percent. No other party would cross the 5 percent threshold in the November parliamentary elections, according to the poll. MS

Former IMAS director Alin Teodorescu, who is now head of Prime Minister Adrian Nastase's chancellery, said in an interview with the daily "Jurnalul national" on 3 August that the drop in support suffered by the PSD in recent months was partly caused by the party's long-postponed announcement of its presidential candidate for the November-December presidential elections. Teodorescu also said that he believes Nastase, 54, is too young to run for president, because the head of state's impact on domestic policy is limited. Nastase, Teodorescu said, would contribute a lot more to solving the country's problems by remaining prime minister. Teodorescu also said he believes the PSD can produce "three winning candidates" other than Nastase who can defeat PNL-Democratic Party candidate Theodor Stolojan in the upcoming presidential ballot. He refused to name those candidates, however. MS

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana told journalists on 2 August that his country is consulting with Chisinau and Brussels on a series of possible sanctions against the separatists in Transdniester, Mediafax reported. Geoana said that the list of Transdniestrian leaders banned from traveling in the EU last year might be enlarged in response to the separatists' closure of schools teaching Moldovan (Romanian) in Latin script (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). Other envisaged sanctions include the blocking of bank accounts and economic measures. Geoana also said that the government in Bucharest is examining the possibility of having children in Transdniester whose schools were closed down "study abroad," where "they would be able to be taught in their mother tongue." MS

In retaliation against Moldovan economic sanctions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004), the Transdniestrian separatist authorities on 1 August detained four freight trains headed for Gagauz-Yeri at the Ribnita crossing, Infotag reported the next day. The trains were stopped for what was called a "thorough customs check." The separatists also announced that all Chisinau-bound trains arriving from Moscow, Kyiv, or other cities in the Commonwealth of Independent States would be stopped for similar checks at Bender-Tighina. MS

Three men who attempted to resist the takeover by Tiraspol militia of the Eureka Moldovan lyceum in Ribnita were sentenced by a local district court to seven days in prison, Infotag reported on 2 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 July 2004). Three other would-be defenders were sentenced to three days in jail. They were charged with obstructing law-enforcement personnel on duty and unauthorized acts of protest. MS

EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana called on Russia on 2 August to help find a solution to the dispute between Chisinau and Tiraspol over the closed Moldovan schools, Infotag reported. In a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Solana said that like Russia, the EU strongly opposes any escalation of the confrontation and "perceives it as imperative that the actions against Moldovan schools taken by Transdniester authorities be stopped." Solana urged Lavrov to convince the separatist authorities to end the school closings and return to the negotiation table. MS

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a 31 July statement that it is deeply concerned over the deterioration of the situation in Transdniester prompted by the recent acts of the Tiraspol authorities against schools teaching Moldovan in Latin script, Infotag reported on 2 August. "Ukraine is adamant in viewing these actions as contradicting European human rights and liberties and as potentially harming the prospects for a resolution of the Transdniester conflict." As a "mediator country, Ukraine urges the Tiraspol administration to take the necessary measures for the resumption of the normal functioning of the Moldovan-language schools," the statement said. MS

Protesters evacuated on 1 August from the offices of Teleradio Moldova in Chisinau and their supporters continued on 2 August to rally outside the building, Infotag reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). They shouted slogans against the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists and against censorship and called for the resignation of Teleradio Moldova executives. The rally was addressed by former Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis, who is co-chairman of the Our Moldova alliance, and by Popular Party Christian Democratic Chairman Iurie Rosca and his deputy, Vlad Cubreacov. MS

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a four-hour news conference on 20 July and answered many questions about the political and socioeconomic situation in the country from both journalists who were present in the conference room and workers at selected Belarusian plants and collective farms via live television links. The conference coincided with the 10th anniversary of Lukashenka's inauguration as Belarusian president. Lukashenka glowed with paternalistic self-confidence and beamed a "father-of-the-nation" image to his compatriots. Addressing a group of workers at Minsk-based television maker Haryzont, he straightforwardly called them "children." The main message Lukashenka seemed to convey at the conference was that Belarus under his rule is enjoying political stability and an economic upturn.

One of the most important questions of the news conference was about what Lukashenka will do in 2006, after the termination of his second presidential term: Will he appoint a "successor" or seek a third term for himself? Lukashenka firmly denied that he might field a "successor" in 2006. "Today I am not even considering this problem," he said. "I think I ought not to do it this way: to select a successor and push him through to power by any means possible. Under today's system of power in Belarus, [doing so] is not a problem."

Lukashenka declared that if he chooses to seek a third presidential term, he will precede it with a referendum on lifting the constitutional provision restricting a president to two five-year terms. "I will not push for any new terms by force," he said. "If the people allow me to run for president in the 2006 election, I will take part only the same way I did in the previous elections -- on equal conditions with the other candidates. This requires a referendum in which people should say: 'Yes, Lukashenka, we allow you to take part in the next presidential election.'" He added, "Speaking frankly, if I pose this question, what grounds are there to bar me, a man who has devoted all his life to the people, from participation in the election?"

According to Lukashenka, formulating a question and making a decision on the referendum should not take long. "As soon as I make a decision on the referendum, I will immediately announce it," he added. He said he is unsure whether he would manage to win the 2006 presidential ballot. But he expressed his conviction that if the election were to take place now, he would "manage to win effortlessly, in an absolutely democratic manner as was the case in the previous election."

On 21 July, Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik shed more light on the referendum issue. Lazavik said there is still time to prepare a national plebiscite on a third term for Lukashenka in order to hold it simultaneously with the parliamentary elections on 17 October. Such an option is possible, Lazavik explained, if the referendum is proposed by Lukashenka himself rather than by voters or the legislature. According to Lazavik, the Central Election Commission would need 45 days to complete the necessary procedures for staging such a plebiscite. Lazavik stressed that holding the referendum would involve little cost, as the territorial commissions set up for the March 2004 local elections are still functioning, and polling stations could be used for both the legislative and referendum votes.

In other words, it is likely that Belarusians will this month be offered a vote on Lukashenka's right to seek a third presidential term in 2006. The political and socioeconomic situations for such a move are auspicious for the Belarusian leader. According to official reports, the government's economic performance in the first half of this year was outstanding -- the country's GDP rose by an annual rate of more than 10 percent. The average monthly wage has risen, reaching an equivalent of $165 in June. Moreover, the government is raising pensions this month by an average of 17.4 percent. Thus Lukashenka has the right to expect an upsurge of enthusiasm for his policies among the electorate in the next few months.

Moreover, the Belarusian opposition is too weak to prevent Lukashenka from winning such a constitutional referendum. An opposition rally on 21 July to mark Lukashenka's decade in power gathered an estimated 2,000-3,000 people, far below the 30,000-40,000 expected by some opposition leaders. "I have arrived for a minimum of 10 years, and journalists need to be prepared for this," Lukashenka said during a news conference in December 1994. What seemed an unbelievable boast 10 years ago now appears to be a dismal reality.

According to a 2 August press release, the UN-backed Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has decided that voter registration will end in Afghanistan on 15 August, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan website reported ( JEMB Chairman Zakim Shah called on Afghans to play "an active part in the democratization" of their country "by exercising their right and registering as voters." Since the start of the voter-registration process in December, the JEMB has established 4,200 registration sites in Afghanistan and has issued 8.6 million cards to eligible Afghans, the press release said. Afghanistan's presidential election is due to take place on 9 October and the parliamentary elections in spring 2005. AT

The Republican Party of Afghanistan (RPA) has declared its support for the candidacy of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai in the upcoming presidential elections, Radio Afghanistan reported on 2 August. RPA leader Sebghatullah Sanjar said that his party will campaign in support of Karzai's candidacy and is not demanding any governmental posts in exchange for its position. The RPA held a news conference on 2 August at the Ministry of Information and Culture to announce its support for Karzai. AT

According to Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on 2 August, Hamid Karzai has launched a campaign to reduce the popularity of his main rivals in the presidential race. The Iranian radio reported that Karzai, through one of his brothers, Qayum Karzai, has asked Abdul Sattar Sirat to drop out of the presidential race. Sitar, however, has reportedly refused to bow out, citing differences with Karzai over the 2001 Bonn accords that established the current political process in Afghanistan. Sirat, a former justice minister, was a close aide to former Afghan King Mohammad Zaher but fell from grace during the negotiations that led to the establishment of the Afghan Transitional Administration. Since 2001 Sirat has lived in the United States, but he recently returned to Afghanistan and declared his candidacy for the presidency (for a list of Afghanistan's presidential candidates, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July 2004). AT

In a commentary on 1 August regarding the decision by the Brussels-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to halt all of its medical programs in Afghanistan after five of its staff members were killed in June, "Amanat" urges Afghan authorities to reveal the truth about case (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 10 June 2004, and "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 July 2004). According to "Amanat," the Interior Ministry arrested 13 people in the northern Badghis Province in connection with the attack on MSF workers. However, on the orders of the attorney general the suspects were released from detention on bail. The Interior Ministry has reportedly reissued the arrest warrants for these individuals. According to MSF, local commanders in Badghis conducted the attack. Since the withdrawal of MSF from Afghanistan, "all other aid organizations [have been prompted to] reduce their activities," "Amanat" notes. The paper urges the government to review the case of the MSF attack and reveal whether the suspects in question actually committed the crime or not. "Otherwise, confidence in government officials will continue to be reduced with the passage of every single day and none other than the ordinary people will suffer the negative impacts." AT

European diplomats said on 1 August that their closed talks in Paris with Iranian officials, aimed at dissuading Iran from resuming uranium-enrichment-related activities, yielded "no substantial progress," reported on 2 August, citing news agency reports. The diplomats met on 29 and 30 July, but "each side repeated their positions and there were no changes," quoted an unnamed European diplomat as saying. The United States is concerned that Iran's latest moves to rebuild centrifuges, which can enrich uranium for civilian or bomb-making purposes, are part of a secret bid to develop nuclear weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 July 2004). In Tehran, Supreme National Security Council official Hussein Musavian conceded on 2 August that Europe and the United States are concerned by Iranian activities. "We want to have uranium enrichment and the fuel cycle at our disposal, [but] are prepared to give the international community complete assurance that this fuel cycle will not [deviate] toward nuclear weapons," IRNA quoted him as saying. VS

Supreme National Security Council official Musavian dismissed any talk of possible U.S. or Israeli strikes on Iranian installations. "These threats are a political and psychological war.... I do not imagine the Americans and Israelis will dare launch the slightest attack on Iran's nuclear installations," IRNA quoted him as saying on 2 August. "America's position in the region" will not allow this, he said, and Israel "faces an internal crisis." Musavian said he is "certain that American threats are is not possible, in the worst possible situation, that the Americans will want to attack Iran," IRNA reported. He said Iran has already planned its "nuclear, chemical, and biological counterattack, initiated by the [Defense] Ministry," but gave no details on those. The United States, he added, can at most press the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions on Iran, and "economic pressure has been shown not to work in the past 25 years. This measure would be a repetition of an experience that has already failed, and we are not worried by it," IRNA reported. VS

U.S. President George W. Bush said during a White House press briefing broadcast on C-SPAN on 2 August that his administration is paying "very close attention" to Iran, a country it has watched "since we [the Bush administration] came to office" in 2000. Bush was responding to a reporter who asked why the United States has paid greater attention to Iraq than Iran. The United States, Bush said, is working to "keep the pressure on the mullahs to listen to the demands of the free world," referring to Iran's Shi'a clergy. He said that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is working with the foreign ministers of France, Britain, and Germany to coordinate U.S. and European positions on Iran. The three European states have so far sought to persuade Iran to abandon its bid to produce nuclear fuel, and reveal all its activities to UN nuclear inspectors. The United States has threatened Iran with UN-imposed sanctions. VS

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with Iraqi Finance Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi in Tehran on 2 August, and told him Iran "considers Iraq its friend," and Iraqi and Iranian officials must boost bilateral cooperation with "agreements, contracts, and banking mechanisms," Fars news agency reported the same day. Al-Mahdi is in Tehran for a two-day conference intended to strengthen business ties between Iran and Iraq, IRNA reported. He arrived on 2 August with a delegation of several deputy ministers and 300 businessmen, who attended the meeting alongside 450 Iranian traders and businessmen. Iraq, he told Kharrazi, "is serious about expanding...cooperation and strengthening its friendship with Iran," IRNA reported. Separately, Radio Farda quoted an unnamed Iraqi official as saying on 2 August that Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has postponed a visit to Iran because of the presence in Tehran of an unspecified political opponent. The official reportedly rejected unconfirmed reports that the opponent is Ahmad Chalabi, a former Iraqi Governing Council member who has visited Iran before, but did not confirm whether or not Chalabi is currently in Tehran, Radio Farda reported. VS

A group identifying itself as the Planning and Follow-up Commission posted a statement to the "Minbar Ahl Al-Sunnah wa Al-Jama'ah" website ( on 2 August claiming responsibility for the previous day's attacks on a number of churches in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). The statement claimed: "The U.S. did not stop at occupation and military invasion of the Muslim land, but they went on to establish hundreds of Christian missions, print distorted books, distribute and spread them amongst the Muslims, with the goal to strip the Muslims from their religion and convert them to Christianity. The Crusaders are but one nation, no matter how different their opinions are." The statement added that God had "enabled" the group to "target a number of painful strikes at their dens, the dens of evil, corruption, vice, and Christianization." Addressing "the people of the crosses," the statement says: "Go back to your senses, and know that God's soldiers are waiting for you. You wanted it to be a Crusade, and here is the outcome." KR

An Iraqi police colonel and a police officer were killed and a third policemen wounded by a roadside bomb that detonated as their vehicle passed by in the Al-Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad on 2 August, Al-Jazeera reported on 3 August. Reuters identified the colonel as Muayyad Mahmud Bashar, chief of the Ma'mun police station in Baghdad. Meanwhile, a roadside bomb in the capital killed two U.S. soldiers overnight, Reuters reported on 3 August, quoting a U.S. military spokesman. Two other U.S. soldiers were wounded in the attack. The spokesman did not provide any additional details on the attack, Reuters reported. KR

U.S. forces reportedly arrested Muthanna Harith al-Dari, a member of the general secretariat of the Muslim Scholars' Association, on 1 August, Iraqi media reported. Al-Dari is the son of Harith Sulayman al-Dari, who is secretary-general of the organization. Both men have been outspoken in their criticism of U.S. military forces in Iraq. The Iraqi Islamic Party released a statement on 2 August criticizing al-Dari's detention, saying: "This is how the United States peddles its false democracy. This is how it gags mouths and buries the other opinion. This is how the United States builds [a] new Iraq." Sheikh Jawad al-Khalisi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Constituent Conference, claimed in a 2 August interview with Al-Jazeera that every Iraqi confronting the occupation is subject to arrest by U.S. forces. "The arrest of al-Dari is one of the forms of [U.S.] oppression," he added. Al-Dari had reportedly given a television interview before his arrest in which he contended that the Iraqi people would not view the upcoming Iraqi National Conference as credible but rather would see it as an outlet for the occupation, adding that his organization would not participate in the conference. The United States has not said why al-Dari was arrested. KR

U.S. forces reportedly battled militants at the home of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Al-Najaf on 2 August, international media reported. Al-Sadr spokesman Mahmud al-Sudani told Al-Arabiyah television on 2 August that U.S. and Iraqi forces opened fire on the house. He also claimed that U.S. and Iraqi forces set fire to a nearby house and burned nearby cars. "We do not know for sure the aims of the siege," al-Sudani said. He further claimed that the United States wants to target "the nationalist currents" that have refused to participate in the Iraqi National Conference to elect an interim national assembly. Reuters reported on 2 August that U.S. forces withdrew from their positions outside al-Sadr's house later in the evening. An unidentified spokesman for al-Sadr said that the cleric was not at home at the time of the incident. KR