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Newsline - September 8, 2004

Speaking to a hand-picked group of Western journalists and analysts on 6 September at his country home outside Moscow, President Vladimir Putin defended his policies in Chechnya and made clear that he sees no connection between those policies and the recent hostage crisis in Beslan, North Ossetia, "The Guardian" and "The Independent" reported on 7 September. "Just imagine that people who shoot children in the back came to power anywhere on our planet. Just ask yourself that, and you will have no more questions about our policy in Chechnya," "The Guardian" quoted him as saying. Putin also said that those who have called on him to enter discussions with moderate Chechen leaders have no conscience. "Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?" "No one has the moral right to tell us to talk to child killers," he added. Putin also expressed his view that the Chechen independence movement is part of a greater strategy by Chechen Islamists, with the help of foreign fundamentalists, to undermine southern Russia and foment conflict throughout Russia. "There are Muslims along the Volga, in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan," he said. "Chechnya isn't Iraq. It's not far away. It's a vital part of our territory. This is all about Russia's territorial integrity." VY

During the same 6 September conference, President Putin said he will conduct an internal, but not public, investigation into the Beslan siege. "I want to establish the chronicle of events and find out who is responsible and might be punished," "The Guardian" quoted Putin as saying. He said that if the Duma were to launch its own investigation it would be "a political show," and "would not be very productive." VY

Free Russia leader Irina Khakamada on 7 September called for an independent investigation into the recent wave of terrorist incidents in Russia, Interfax reported. Khakamada said that a nonpartisan commission should be created to study possible intelligence failures that led to the attacks and to examine what is being done to stabilize the situation in Chechnya. She said the government's policy of creating a "Potemkin village" in Chechnya with dubious referendums and elections is a failure and that it is time to negotiate with "the separatists." She added that the federal mass media must stop "lying to the public," saying that such lies are "insulting to the citizenry and play into the hands of the terrorists." RC

Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman and Motherland leader Dmitrii Rogozin, who was a member of the team that negotiated with the Beslan hostage takers, said that early in the siege they threw a note from a window warning that the terrorists would begin to kill hostages if Russian troops attempted to jam telecommunications in the area, Ekho Moskvy reported on 5 September. He said Russian security forces took the threat seriously, but when electronic intelligence monitored local mobile-telecoms operators they noticed that in the last two days of the three-day crisis the hostage takers conducted virtually no communication via mobile telephone. Rogozin speculated that those who masterminded the raid intentionally left the militants without instruction to set a no-retreat scenario that would "bring the whole ordeal to a bloody end." This would explain why the captors did not articulate any reasonable demands, Rogozin added. Rogozin also dismissed claims made by Putin's adviser for the North Caucasus, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, that during the siege the hostage takers were receiving instructions from abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 September 2004) VY

The Chechen website on 6 September cited Russian media reports of the capture by Russian forces in August 2001 during hostilities in Chechnya of Khan-Pasha Kulaev, whom Russian officials have named as one of the Beslan hostage takers killed when the school was stormed on 3 September. On 7 September, the same website cited "Vremya novostei" as having ascertained that a second hostage taker, Mairbek Shaybekkhanov, was detained by Ingush special services in autumn 2003. Shaybekkhanov was also among those dead hostage takers who have already been identified. LF

About 130,000 people, including many celebrities, gathered on Red Square on 7 September for a government-organized demonstration against terrorism and in support of President Putin, Russian and Western news agencies reported. Speakers at the event demanded that terrorism be crushed and that the death penalty be reintroduced for people convicted of carrying out terrorist acts. Addressing the crowd, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov said that Russian security officials should be held responsible for the Beslan tragedy and other terrorist acts, TV-Tsentr reported. "We should ask them why the terrorists in Beslan had the best Russian weapons," he said. ORT broadcast images of a banner at the rally that read, in English: "You want to help? Extradite Zakaev." The banner apparently referred to Akhmed Zakaev, a spokesman for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov who has been granted political asylum in Britain, and whose extradition Russia seeks. Of note is that for the first time in many years the Russian national tricolor could be seen alongside Soviet banners at a pro-government demonstration. VY

Several hundred people attended a demonstration on 7 September in Vladikavkaz, capital of North Ossetia, at which participants criticized the reaction of the republic's leadership during the Beslan hostage crisis and called on them to resign, Interfax and reported. Among those who addressed the rally were former republican Communist Party functionary Tamerlan Tsomaev; Arsen Fadzaev, who represents the republic in the Russian State Duma; and retired Colonel Stanislav Suanov. Suanov was the runner-up in the January 2002 North Ossetian presidential ballot, polling some 29 percent of the vote compared with 59 percent for Dzasokhov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2002). LF

The Foreign Ministry announced on 7 September that it will step up its efforts to get Western countries to extradite members of Chechen President Maskhadov's administration -- including spokesman Zakaev and Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov, who has been granted political asylum in the United States. The Foreign Ministry stated it will take "extra measures to materialize the extradition of Zakaev and Akhmadov because information obtained already in the first stage of the investigation of the terrorist act in Beslan indicates the involvement of Maskhadov and his accomplices in these events." The ministry continued that "we regret that our partners do not share our views and do not consider the obvious facts." Maskhadov has condemned the Beslan hostage taking and has denied involvement in the attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 September 2004). VY

Effective Politics Foundation head Gleb Pavlovskii said that the Beslan tragedy will lead Russia to revise it foreign policy and to demand that the West refrain from its "adopted and customary political correctness" as far as Chechnya is concerned, "Izvestiya" reported on 6 September. "We can not tolerate, in official documents of our partners -- whether it is the European Union or the United States -- that [Chechen] terrorists are called rebels," Pavlovskii said. "We should make clear that any -- even symbolic -- support of terrorists will be considered an unfriendly act toward us." He added that the Foreign Ministry will encounter resistance to such a measure, but that it should make such demands now as Russia must exhibit a "new reasonable level of toughness, albeit not aggressiveness, toward our neighbors." VY

During an emergency meeting called by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in the wake of the Beslan crisis, the NATO-Russia Council on 7 September discussed ways of expanding joint measures in the fight against terrorism, Western and Russian news agencies reported. The council issued a statement condemning "the outrageous terrorist attacks perpetrated against the people of the Russian Federation," ITAR-TASS reported. Both sides agreed to strengthen and intensify their common antiterrorism efforts, including drawing up a "concrete action plan." Moscow is urgently trying to build up a new antiterrorism alliance with Brussels and Israel, commented on 7 September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 2004). VY

In response to the recent wave of terrorist attacks, the government has decided to increase expenditures for defense and security in 2005 even more than it did in its original draft budget, "Vedomosti" reported on 8 September. In the draft, such spending was set to increase by 28 percent, prompting critics to decry the "militarization" of the budget (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 August 2004). On 7 September, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov said the government will submit a proposal to the Duma asking for additional defense and security appropriations beyond those in the draft budget, although he did not say how much money the government would seek. Analysts cited by the daily speculated that the additional funds would either be taken from the stabilization fund or that the budget surplus would be reduced from the proposed 1.5 percent of GDP to 0.5 percent. RC

Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia) told ITAR-TASS on 7 September that four Duma committees have begun the process of studying foreign legislation and domestic legislative initiatives with an eye toward strengthening Russia's security framework. Duma Legislation Committee Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov (Unified Russia) told on 6 September that he and the chairmen of the Defense, Security, and Constitutional Law and State Affairs committees met on 3 September to discuss increased security at airports, subway systems, and other public places. "Izvestiya" reported on 7 September that some deputies have proposed introducing domestic travel restrictions, while others are backing a proposal that would limit the right to transfer or lend automobiles. Interfax reported on 7 September that the four committee heads will meet on 9 September with Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov to discuss the proposals. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader and Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii told Interfax on 7 September that a new government structure should be created to take over the fight against terrorism. "To successfully fight terrorism," he said, "it is necessary to take all religious organizations under control and to rule out any propaganda promoting violence against citizens, let alone the state." RC

The Moscow City Duma has begun preparing legislation that would sharply curtail entry into the city by nonresidents, "Gazeta" reported on 8 September, citing the initiative's author, Deputy Yurii Popov. Popov said that access to the capital should be restricted for any ethnic group whose numbers in Moscow exceed 10 percent of the city's overall population. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov told a massive antiterrorism demonstration in Moscow on 7 September that rules for registering nonresidents must be strengthened. He called for harsher rules "that would allow us to defend Moscow, and any other city, from the encroachments of terrorists," the daily reported. Popov noted that the administrative borders of any federation subject may currently be sealed if a state of emergency is declared. "If we admit that this is a war, then that entails the renunciation of certain rights and freedom in the name of security," Popov said. Human rights lawyer Pavel Astakhov told the daily that such restrictions would not significantly hinder would-be terrorists. "No terrorists register themselves," Astakhov said. "And after the adoption of such a law they will simply pay larger bribes to the police." RC

Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Andrei Sharonov told a Moscow conference on 8 September that his ministry is preparing a new, scaled-down list of strategic state enterprises, RIA-Novosti reported. The latest list of enterprises that the government considers to have national-strategic significance was posted on the president's website last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2004). The list comprises 514 wholly owned state institutions and 549 joint-stock companies in which the state holds a strategic interest. Sharonov told the conference that the number of such enterprises is unjustifiably large. He said that "only those enterprises that fulfill functions related to national security" should be included in the list. RC

Armenian President Robert Kocharian held talks in Warsaw on 6 September with his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski, and with Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka, dpa and Armenian Public Television reported, as cited by Groong. Speaking at a joint press conference after their talks, Kocharian and Kwasniewski assessed bilateral political relations as "excellent," but conceded that economic relations could and should be intensified. Kwasniewski expressed support for a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and suggested that Armenia could profit from Poland's experience in integrating into European structures. Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who accompanied Kocharian to Warsaw, signed an agreement on 6 September with his Polish counterpart Jerzy Szmajdzinski on technical cooperation and officer training, Armenian Public Television reported. The two ministers also discussed the dispatch to Iraq, scheduled for later this month, of 50 Armenian servicemen who will serve as part of the Polish-led international peacekeeping force, Reuters reported on 6 September. LF

Baku traffic police detained on the morning of 7 September two members of an unofficial 200-person committee formed to coordinate protests against the illegal actions of a powerful regional official, Turan reported. Committee head Ahad Ahadov, who is a member of the Masally District council, traveled to Baku together with Chingiz Abiev to give a press conference at which they planned to publicize the illegal activities of Masally District Governor Ahad Abiev. Ahadov was charged at Baku's Sabayil District police department with "resisting the police" and sentenced to seven days' administrative arrest, Turan reported. At an earlier press conference in mid-August, Ahadov claimed that Abiev has appointed to senior positions members of his close family who have illegally appropriated land and embezzled up to 15 million manats ($3,054) from the local budget, Turan reported on 17 August. Ahadov's request for permission to hold a protest in Masally in early September against the activities of the Abiev clan was refused; he hopes to stage an analogous protest in Baku. LF

Robert Guliev, interior minister of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, told Interfax on 7 September that Tbilisi is deploying both army and Interior Ministry troops near the internal border with South Ossetia. He further claimed that fortifications are being dug in the Georgian-populated villages of Kekhvi, Kurta, Kheiti, and Eredvi. General Aleksandre Kiknadze, who commands the Georgian peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia, denied on 7 September the reports of a Georgian troop buildup, but said Russian peacekeepers have confirmed that it is the Ossetians, not the Georgians, who are engaged in digging trenches and dugouts, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Kazakhstan's Embassy in Moscow has asked the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office to clarify a recent statement by Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii that the group of militants who seized a school in Beslan included a Kazakh, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 7 September. The news agency quoted a Kazakh Foreign Ministry statement as saying that the embassy "has sent a note to the Prosecutor-General's Office of the Russian Federation with a request for official confirmation of the information in question; [the embassy] is currently awaiting an answer." The statement continued, "According to the information available to the Kazakh Embassy in Russia, the armed group included several individuals of Ingush and Chechen nationality who were born on Kazakh territory. But this fact cannot serve as the basis for claims of their affiliation with the Republic of Kazakhstan, considering that virtually all adult Chechens and Ingush were born in Kazakhstan as a result of deportations during World War II." DK

President Nursultan Nazarbaev told a women's forum in Astana on 7 September that Kazakhstan needs to increase the number of women in all branches of government, Kazakh TV reported. He said, "I call on people to vote for female candidates in upcoming elections to the Mazhilis [lower chamber of parliament]." He added, "The more women who occupy posts at the decision-making level, the better the quality of those decisions will be," Kazinform reported. The president also noted that a law on equal rights for men and women has not yet been passed. On this issue, the Presidential Commission on Family and Women's Affairs and the cabinet are charged with developing and implementing a new gender-equality strategy. Seventeen percent of the candidates in the 19 September parliamentary elections are women, or a total of 115 female candidates. DK

Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov announced on 7 September that Kazakhstan's military plans to buy 24 Mi-17 helicopters from Russia's Kazan Helicopter Factory, Kazinform reported. Kazakhstan will purchase four helicopters by the end of 2004, and an additional 20 in 2005-06. Akhmetov said, "The country needs modern military helicopters that are capable, if necessary, of countering incursions by international terrorism and combating drug trafficking." The Mi-17 is the export model of Russia's Mi-8, the workhorse of the country's military helicopter fleet. According to RBK, the Kazan Helicopter Factory has produced nearly 12,000 Mi-8s and Mi-17s. DK

Debate continues to simmer over the fate of press freedom in Tajikistan nearly three weeks after tax authorities shut down the Jiyonkhon printing press on 19 August, leaving a number of independent dailies without a printer. Davlatali Davlatov, deputy chairman of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan, told Avesta on 7 September, "The closure of some newspapers does not mean that Tajikistan has turned away from its commitment to build a democratic state." He continued, "It is clear that it's only because of tax evasion and problems with the tax police that the activities of these newspapers were halted, and especially the printing press where they were published." The same day, however, the opposition Social-Democratic Party expressed its concern, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. A party statement cited the newspapers "Nerui Sukhan," "Ruzi Nav," "Odamu Olam," "Najot," and "Adolat" as having encountered problems recently. It continued, "We feel that the authorities' arguments about the economic causes of these incidents do not stand up to serious criticism.... We believe that the basic aim of these actions by the authorities is to frighten the media and journalists in the lead-up to parliamentary elections." DK

Sixteen people went on trial in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, on 6 September for involvement in the late-March bomb blast in a nearby village, ITAR-TASS reported on 7 September. The defendants face charges of terrorism, attempting to overthrow the constitutional system, and creating a criminal organization, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Eight victims and 23 witnesses will testify at the trial, which will be open. The trial is the second to deal with the violence that rocked Uzbekistan in the spring. The country's Supreme Court handed down lengthy sentences on 24 August to 15 defendants convicted of involvement in violence in Tashkent in late March-early April. DK

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary-General Jan Kubis met with Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev in Tashkent on 7 September, Uzbek radio reported. The two discussed cooperation, joint projects, and preparations for Uzbek parliamentary elections in December 2004. Kubis called the creation of a bicameral legislature in Uzbekistan an important move toward a more democratic society. The two also discussed the problems of terrorism, religious extremism, and drug trafficking, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Meanwhile, state-run Uzbek television provided critical coverage of the OSCE. One report noted on 7 September that some OSCE member states allow extremist organizations to operate with impunity on their territory. In an apparent reference to the OSCE, another report said that "certain international organizations still fail to grasp that by carrying out their work under the slogan of protecting human rights, they are in effect supporting terrorism." DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told Belarusians on 7 September that he has signed a decree on holding a referendum, simultaneously with the parliamentary elections on 17 October, asking voters to remove a constitutional two-term limit on the presidency and to allow him to seek a third term in 2006, Belarusian media reported. In an address broadcast by all national television and radio channels, Lukashenka said his task of building a "quiet, comfortable home" for Belarusians has not been finished. Lukashenka warned his compatriots that if a new president comes to replace him, outside forces supporting such a successor may take control of Belarusian enterprises and land. Lukashenka also stressed his role in maintaining peace and stability in Belarus and shielding the country from terrorism (see also End Note). JM

The leaders of five opposition parties -- the Belarusian Popular Front, the Belarusian Party of Labor, the United Civic Party, the Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly, and the Belarusian Party of Communists -- have called on their compatriots to hold a nationwide protest on 10 September to demonstrate against Lukashenka's decree to stage a presidential referendum, Belapan reported on 8 September. "By putting the question about preparations for prolonging his powers to a referendum, Alyaksandr Lukashenka is actually admitting that his one-person power system has no prospects," the leaders said in a statement. "The referendum will only prolong the period of economic stagnation and the people's political [powerlessness]." The statement asserts that "a majority of Belarusian citizens are against transforming our country into an absolutist monarchy in the center of Europe." JM

According to a poll held by the Democratic Initiatives fund and the SOCIS center from 1-4 September, 31 percent of respondents intend to vote for opposition Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko and 24 percent for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in the 31 October presidential elections, Interfax reported on 7 September. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko is supported by 7 percent of voters and Socialist Party head Oleksandr Moroz by 6.5 percent. The pollsters found that in a hypothetical runoff, Yushchenko would be supported by 40 percent of voters and Yanukovych by 33 percent. The same poll also revealed that 12 percent of respondents believe the elections will be absolutely honest; 32 percent think that isolated violations will not affect the final results; 25 percent believe that there will be significant violations affecting the final results; and 18 percent think that everything will be distorted. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on 7 September adopted an appeal to government agencies, local government, companies, institutions, and organizations, asking them "to use every means to promote citizens' conscious choice and uninhibited expression of their civic position" in the 31 October presidential elections, UNIAN reported. The appeal says government agencies must create equal opportunities for candidates to conduct their campaign and rule out any "bias and groundless interference in the election process." The parliament also adopted an appeal to journalists and media executives, urging them to ensure unbiased coverage of the campaign and prevent "the distortion of facts and use of manipulation techniques." JM

German Defense Minister Peter Struck told the German parliament's Defense Committee on 7 September that the international community's "standards before status" policy on Kosova "is not the only solution" regarding the final status of the province, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and Berlin's "Tagesspiegel" reported. He did not elaborate but questioned the efficacy of several aspects of current international policy in Kosova. He noted, for example, that it takes much money and many troops to protect often small and isolated settlements inhabited primarily by older members of ethnic minorities. Struck suggested that the current "security policy has failed," adding that time has come to consider establishing "more consolidated" Serbian enclaves. He also promised a "thorough investigation" into the role of the German KFOR troops during the 17-18 March violence. German and some other European KFOR troops have recently come in for heavy criticism from NGOs and the German military for their performance during the March unrest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 August 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 July and 20 August 2004). Elsewhere in Berlin, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told a gathering of German diplomats posted around the world that the current international policy in Kosova is working, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" noted. PM

Serbia and Montenegro's Minister for Human Rights and Minority Rights Rasim Ljajic, who also chairs the National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, said in The Hague on 7 September that his meeting with Carla Del Ponte, who is chief prosecutor of the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, got nowhere, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He stressed that the session was "very difficult and full of mistrust" because he and Del Ponte took "diametrically opposing positions" on the most important war crimes cases involving Serbian citizens or people Del Ponte believes are in Serbia. Ljajic said that Del Ponte claims to have information about the whereabouts of indicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic but will not give it to anyone lest they tip Mladic off. Ljajic added that he and Del Ponte also discussed the cases of four indicted Serbian generals and of fugitive indictee and former Croatian Serb rebel leader Goran Hadzic. She will visit Belgrade in October, the minister added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 July and 27 August 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 2 July 2004). In related news, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called on indictees to give themselves up voluntarily and rejected Del Ponte's frequent charges that Serbia does not cooperate with the tribunal. PM

With the backing of Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica's government, Education Minister Ljiljana Colic has banned the teaching of the theory of evolution in eighth-grade biology courses in the coming school year, Reuters reported on 7 September. The ban remains in place until the 2005-06 school year, when the theory of creation will given equal billing with evolution in the classrooms. Colic, who is a Serbian Orthodox believer, told the Belgrade daily "Glas Javnosti" that both theories are "dogmatic" and exist "side by side and legitimately throughout the world." She stressed that it is "normal that a minister's personality leaves a mark" on his or her work, adding, "This is my mark, and time will tell if I was right." PM

Serbian Education Minister Colic's decision to place the theories of creation and evolution on an equal footing led to sharp objections from the Belgrade academic community, Reuters reported on 7 September. Nikola Tucic, who is a biology lecturer at Belgrade University, called her decision a "disaster," adding that "this is outrageous." "We are slowly turning into a theocratic state, and in the 21st century we are going back to the 'Book of Revelations,'" he stressed, possibly meaning "Genesis" rather than "Revelations." Tucic argued: "Where did the minister get the idea that Darwin's theory is dogmatic? There were attempts [to ban teaching of evolution] in several U.S. states, but they were rejected. It turns out that our fundamentalists have been much more successful." Some critics suggested that Colic's decision reflects a desire by President Kostunica and his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) to shore up their support among Orthodox believers and the church. A recent poll indicates that the political landscape is increasingly dominated by Serbian President Boris Tadic, Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic, and businessman Bogoljub Karic, leaving Kostunica a poor fourth with the backing of only about 10 percent of the electorate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 July 2004). PM

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier urged the Macedonian government in Skopje on 7 September to resolve the ongoing dispute over a referendum against government plans to cut the number of administrative districts, dpa reported. "The territorial organization and decentralization are internal Macedonian issues, and we do not want to interfere. But the country should not follow...leaders who are leading the state away from the EU," Barnier said, clearly signaling that France disagrees with the opposition parties backing the referendum against redistricting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 September 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 and 27 August and 3 September 2004). In other news, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul arrived in Skopje on 7 September for a two-day official visit, MIA news agency reported. Gonul and his Macedonian counterpart Vlado Buckovski discussed Macedonia's bid for NATO membership and bilateral military cooperation. UB

Opposition National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party alliance co-Chairmen Traian Basescu and Theodor Stolojan at a 7 September press conference accused Prime Minister and ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) Chairman Adrian Nastase of "cowardice" for having held internal PSD elections to nominate candidates for parliament, only to pass on the responsibility to party members for maintaining the party's corrupt members in place, Mediafax reported. Basescu said, "The pillars of corruption within the PSD are still in place," while members of Nastase's "personal mafia" and "local barons" will also be on the PSD's lists. The PSD responded with a press release threatening libel suits, while adding that the opposition is only continuing its "dirty campaign" instead of confronting programs and ideas. ZsM

An opinion poll conducted by the CURS agency released on 6 September shows the PSD leading among voters in both the parliamentary and presidential races, Mediafax reported. The PSD would receive 40 percent of the vote in the November elections, while the opposition PNL-Democratic Party alliance would garner 34 percent, the Greater Romania Party (PRM) 12 percent, and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania would only just clear the 5 percent hurdle to be represented in parliament. In the presidential race, PSD candidate and Prime Minister Nastase led with 39 percent, while PNL Chairman Stolojan would receive 34 percent, and PRM Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor 14 percent. The poll indicated reversed results for both contests in Bucharest, with Stolojan leading Nastase, 42 percent to 36 percent, and the PNL-Democratic Party alliance leading the PSD 44 percent to 34 percent. ZsM

President Vladimir Voronin sent a message on 7 September to the Tighina railway workers evacuated the previous day from the station, promising Moldova's full support, Flux reported. Voronin said Tighina was "the hostage of greed and political ambitions." Meanwhile, Moldova's Prosecutor-General's Office has begun investigating the incident at Tighina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 September 2004). ZsM

A Transdniester court on 7 September sentenced Dinu Mija, a cameraman for Moldova-1 TV, to 15 days in prison for assault and illegally entering the region, Basa-Press reported, citing Ion Leahu, Moldova's representative in the Joint Control Commission. Transdniestrian authorities arrested Mija on 6 September when he tried to film the takeover of the Tighina railway station. He is accused of having attacked a policeman who was trying to take his camera. The police confiscated and apparently destroyed Mija's camera. According to Flux, the Union of Moldovan Journalists appealed on 7 September to the Council of Europe, the EU, the International Federation of Journalists, and the International Press Institute to intervene for Mija's release. ZsM

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka addressed the nation on all national television and radio channels on 7 September and said that he has signed a decree on holding a referendum on 17 October, simultaneously with legislative elections scheduled for that day. Lukashenka said he proposes only one question for the plebiscite:

"Do you allow the first president of the Republic of Belarus, Alyaksandr Ryhoravich Lukashenka, to participate as a candidate in presidential elections, and do you approve of the first part of Article 81 of the Constitution of Belarus to be worded in the following way: 'The president shall be elected for five years directly by the people of the Republic of Belarus on the basis of a universal, free, equal, and direct election law by secret ballot?'"

The current wording of the first part of Article 81 includes the above-cited phrase plus one more: "The same person may be the president no more than two terms." Thus, Lukashenka proposed to remove the constitutional limitation on presidential terms altogether.

Lukashenka was first elected president in 1994, when he received 80 percent of the vote in a runoff with the then Belarusian prime minister. Lukashenka restarted his presidency in 1996 with a fraudulent constitutional referendum, which gave him extensive powers and marginalized the legislature. He won reelection with 75 percent of the vote in 2001, in a ballot that international observers said was neither free nor fair. If Belarusian voters say "yes" to Lukashenka's question on 17 October, he will be able to run for president for a third time in 2006.

Can Belarusian voters say "no" to Lukashenka on 17 October? In theory, yes. The Minsk-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) found in a poll conducted in June that 50.9 percent of Belarusians would be against Lukashenka's hypothetical move to prolong his presidential powers for a third term, while 35.2 percent would back such an attempt; 13.9 percent of respondents remained undecided on this issue or provided no answer.

However, in Belarus, as the saying goes, it actually matters who counts the votes, not how people vote. Beginning from the controversial 1996 referendum, the executive authorities have taken full control of the election process and made it extremely "unfriendly" for the opposition. Opposition candidates face immense difficulties during the registration process, while opposition representatives are routinely refused seats on election commissions of all levels. In addition, Lukashenka introduced a highly controversial practice of weeklong early voting, during which the election process is out of any public control and which, according to many observers, is the best opportunity for the authorities to manipulate the vote.

This year's parliamentary election campaign is no different from the previous ones organized by Lukashenka. Opposition political parties said they were allocated some 2 percent of the 1,430 seats on the 110 district election commissions. They fared even worse with regard to polling-station election commissions, on which they got only some 0.2 percent of a total of 70,000 seats. Thus, it is practically impossible for the opposition to monitor the voting process and vote count on 17 October.

In his 7 September address to the nation, Lukashenka recalled two major achievements of his 10-year rule: putting the country on the path of "progressive development" after the political and social turmoil that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, and ensuring security for Belarusians. "In the past 10 years, not a single Belarusian has fallen victim to a terrorist act or an armed conflict," Lukashenka said. "We have prevented our country from participating in international adventures that could put your life and safety even under a minimal threat."

Lukashenka's words came less than a week after the shocking hostage crisis in Beslan in Russia, thus accentuating his concern for the Belarusians' peaceful way of life. "In the referendum you will vote for the security of the country, for the life and health of your children and grandchildren," he stressed.

Some observers noted that the Beslan tragedy, apart from providing Lukashenka with a good propaganda argument in support of the prolongation of his rule, will also make things easier for him in Moscow if the Kremlin chooses to oppose Lukashenka's intention to stay in power beyond 2006. According to this line of reasoning, Russian President Putin is now much too occupied with the Beslan crisis and its aftermath and will have neither the time nor the will to interfere with the announced plebiscite in Belarus. And if the 17 October plebiscite, as should be expected, provides a "yes" to Lukashenka's question, it will be much more difficult to persuade him later not to run for president in 2006.

The Belarusian opposition is too weak, fragmented, and marginalized to prevent Lukashenka from winning the 17 October referendum. Paradoxically, however, the announcement of the presidential referendum makes the opposition somewhat stronger by giving it a clear-cut goal and direction in the 17 October election campaign -- to mobilize the electorate against Lukashenka's third term. "People should simply vote for a candidate who is against Lukashenka's third term," Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists, commented immediately after the announcement of the referendum. And opposition United Civic Party head Anatol Lyabedzka added: "In this situation, our main rivals are not candidates for people's deputies supported by the authorities, but the referendum itself."

It seems reasonable that the Belarusian opposition should now launch an immediate campaign against Lukashenka's intention to extend his rule. Because winning a referendum by rigging or manipulating the vote is one thing, while winning it in people's minds is quite another.

In the evening of 7 September, when Lukashenka was about to announce his decision on the 17 October plebiscite, the authorities herded several hundred people into a central square in Minsk under the pretext of staging a meeting to express support and sympathy for those who suffered from the Beslan hostage tragedy. But it turned out that these people were needed there to show "spontaneous" support and enthusiasm for Lukashenka's intention to extend his rule. The crowd reportedly reacted to Lukashenka's referendum speech, which was shown on a specially established television screen, with silent shock. As long as Belarusians are capable of such reactions, the Belarusian opposition's case is not completely lost.

A mob estimated in the hundreds attacked the office of an aid agency in Faizabad, capital of Badakhshan Province, on 7 September, international news agencies reported. At least two employees of the aid agency, which is run by the Agha Khan Development Network, were beaten and the agency office was damaged. An Afghan government official, who insisted on remaining anonymous, said that the attack was provoked by rumors that the agency was converting Sunni Muslims in the area, Reuters reported on 7 September. Agha Khan is the spiritual leader of the Isma'ili branch of Islam, a sect of Shi'a Islam. The Isma'ilis represent a small religious minority in Afghanistan. However an aid agency official who also wished to remain anonymous said that the attack was the result of a misunderstanding in which people thought two local women were sexually assaulted in the agency. Agha Khan has invested heavily in the country since the demise of the Taliban. AT

Ramazan Bashardost said that more attacks against nongovernmental organizations working in Afghanistan are inevitable, AFP reported on 8 September. While not directly commenting on the attack in Faizabad, Bashardost said that he fears "the worst can happen to nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan because Afghans are convinced [the NGOs] are taking for themselves the money that should be distributed to the Afghan people." Bashardost accused NGOs of acting like "private firms" and using 80 percent of their aid budgets on their staff. "Afghans pray for them to leave," Bashardost told AFP, referring to the thousands of aid agencies in the country. According to the planning minister, "it was a strategic error to confine the reconstruction" of Afghanistan to humanitarian organizations rather than the private sector and the Afghan government. According to Afghan Planning Ministry figures, there are currently 2,300 humanitarian organizations and 337 international aid agencies working in Afghanistan. AT

The Nasar and Babar tribes have been involved in what has been reported as "heavy fighting" since 4 September in the border area between Logar and Nangarhar provinces, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 6 September. According to eyewitnesses, heavy weapons have been used in the clashes but no reports of casualties are available. An eyewitness told AIP that Afghan government helicopters hovered over the zone of conflict, "but there have been no signs of any interference by the government." The cause of the fighting is not known. AT

In an interview on 5 September, newly appointed Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said that he looks forward to better relations with Afghanistan, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on 7 September. Aziz said that relations between Kabul and Islamabad have been improving and on the economic front Pakistan is Afghanistan's largest trading partner. "On the political front...[Afghans are concerned] that their internal security is affected by people who reside on this [Pakistani] side of the border," Aziz said. According to Aziz, his country has been very active in trying to contain the movement of militants into Afghanistan. A politically and economically stable Afghanistan is in the interest of Pakistan, Aziz maintained. AT

"Iran is a country that is not part of the civilized world in terms of its behavior," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a 7 September interview published in "The Washington Times" the next day. Rumsfeld was discussing the provision of money and personnel from Iran to the continuing insurgency in Iraq, although he conceded that it is not clear who in Iran is behind this. Rumsfeld said, "By 'they,' I'm not going to say which element of the government or whether it's even known to the government." He continued: "But money has come in from Iran. People have come in from Iran. And it's a very difficult thing to stop." Rumsfeld also criticized the international community's lax approach towards Iran. He said, "And when you have countries of the world that are not willing to participate in an organized effort to try to persuade a country to behave in a civilized way, it encourages them simply to continue on its merry way." BS

Radio Farda reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a 7 September interview with "The Jerusalem Post" that the international community's efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands are inadequate. It is not too late to stop Iran, he said, but the issue should be referred to the United Nations Security Council. "There is no doubt" that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, Sharon said. "That is their intention, and they are doing it by deception and subterfuge, using this cover or that. This is completely clear." Sharon said the danger is that Israel can be reached by Iran's 1,300-kilometer-range Shihab-3 missile, and Iran is working on another missile with a range of 2,500 kilometers. BS

Iran's Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Admiral Ali Shamkhani said on 7 September that Iran is willing to demonstrate its Shihab-3 missile "in the presence of observers," IRNA reported. Iran test-fired the missile on 11 August (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 August 2004). Shamkhani went on to say that Iran continuously upgrades its defensive capabilities as part of its policy of deterrence. "Being powerful does not necessarily mean war-mongering, neither do the roads of peace lead to concession." BS

During talks in Vienna with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei, Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani pledged to suspend all uranium-enrichment activities, the "Financial Times" reported on 8 September. This pledge includes a freeze on producing, testing, and assembling uranium-enrichment centrifuges. Iran pledged to suspend enrichment activities in October 2003, but according to the most recent IAEA report, Iran intends to convert 37 tons of nearly raw uranium (yellowcake) into uranium hexafluoride, which can be enriched in centrifuges (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 October 2003 and 6 September 2004). The latest Iranian offer is reportedly dependent on the Europeans' commitment to an earlier pledge of an economic payoff for Iran. An anonymous "European diplomat," however, told the "Financial Times" that Europe wants Tehran to pledge that it will suspend the preparation of materials that will be enriched in the centrifuges. BS

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher seemed a little bit skeptical about Iran's offer to the IAEA, RFE/RL reported. Speaking at a 7 September briefing in Washington, Boucher said, "You don't have to look back too far to find Iranian officials saying that they were going to suspend production of centrifuge and use of centrifuges, and then to find them saying that no, they were going to go ahead anyway." Boucher went on to connect the Iranian actions with the IAEA meeting planned for 13 September. He said, "One might conclude that some of these cycles [of unfulfilled promises] have to do with the imminence of IAEA board meetings -- that we hear that they're going to do this, that, or the other before a board meeting and then, somewhat afterwards, not necessarily too long, we find out that they either did not or would not or will not do those things." BS

Deputy Health Minister Mohammad Ismail Akbari said that the majority of Iranian physicians are living below the poverty line, Radio Farda reported recently, citing Fars News Agency. About 1,000 of them have high incomes and 5,000 have adequate incomes, but after these two groups about 30,000 physicians (83 percent) are living below the poverty line. Akbari said these physicians have incomes of 700,000-800,000 rials per month (about $88-$101). Akbari added that health standards in Iran are better than those in neighboring states. BS

Gunmen raided the Baghdad offices of the Bridge to Baghdad humanitarian aid organization on 7 September, kidnapping two female Italian nationals and two Iraqis, Reuters reported. Representatives from the Italian aid organization told Al-Jazeera on 7 September that the gunmen exited three vehicles and stormed the building. Once inside, they reportedly tied the hands of one of the employees, and forced the others to the ground and asked the names of the employees inside the building. The men left after five minutes, taking the Italian women and an Iraqi male employee, as well as a woman working for another organization located on the premises. Witnesses told Al-Jazeera that the gunmen were dressed in military fatigues and identified themselves as working for the government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Some 15 gunmen were said to have participated in the operation, AP reported on 7 September. Militants have kidnapped more than 100 foreigners in Iraq in the past 18 months. The aid organization has been operating in Iraq since 1991. A message posted on the Internet said that a group calling itself Ansar al-Zawahiri kidnapped the women, and claimed the two were Italian intelligence officers, dpa reported on 8 September. KR

Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari on 7 September called on the United Nations to return its foreign staff to Iraq, saying the UN's return is long overdue, the UN News Center reported ( Al-Zebari told UN deputy special representative Ross Mountain in Baghdad that the UN is needed to help energize the reconstruction and political process. He also asked the UN to support an international conference on reconstruction. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a 7 September report to the Security Council that the ongoing violence in Iraq could delay the January elections, AP reported on 8 September. He noted that the recent surge in fighting, assassinations, and abductions across Iraq is hampering the political and economic initiatives of the interim government and is preventing an expansion of UN activities. Annan said that building an electoral administration remains a major challenge, in addition to the immense logistical challenge of voter registration and polling. KR

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) head Jalal Talabani on 7 September offered protection to Turkish truck drivers working in Iraq, Anatolia news agency reported. Talabani spoke with reporters in Ankara while en route to Europe. He said that Kurdish peshmerga forces could escort Turkish drivers to Baghdad if those drivers change their routes and travel through Al-Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk rather than through Mosul. Meanwhile, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) official Nechirvan Barzani, who leads the Kurdistan Regional Government, arrived in Ankara on 7 September for talks with Turkish officials. Regarding the spate of attacks and kidnappings of Turkish truck drivers, Barzani told reporters: "These incidents do not take place in the [KDP] region we control; they happen mostly in the south." Barzani did not say whether he would offer protection to Turkish drivers on behalf of the KDP. The KDP controls the western region of Iraqi Kurdistan while the PUK controls the eastern side. The wife of a Turkish truck driver held captive for the past several weeks said on 7 September that the kidnappers have demanded a $45,000 ransom for the driver's release, TRT 2 television reported. KR

Salim Chalabi, the nephew of Iraqi National Congress (INC) head Ahmad Chalabi, was dismissed from his position as head of the Iraqi War Crimes Tribunal prosecuting Saddam Hussein and other former regime members, "Al-Furat" reported on 7 September. Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 5 September that Talib al-Zubaydi, the assistant to the court president, was named as Salim Chalabi's successor. An arrest warrant was issued for Salim Chalabi in early August for his alleged role in the assassination of a senior Finance Ministry official (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 12 August 2004). INC spokesman Haydar al-Musawi told Al-Diyar television in a 7 September interview that the charges against Salim Chalabi are "groundless" and contended that those who seek to destroy him because of his relation to INC head Ahmad Chalabi are misguided, adding that Salim Chalabi is not a member of the INC. "He is a jurist, and he was selected for this post based on his legal competence," al-Musawi said. KR