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Newsline - February 15, 2005

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov publicly criticized Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov at an annual cabinet session on social issues on 14 February, Interfax and RIA-Novosti reported. Fradkov said a recent Health and Social Development Ministry report on the implementation of the law monetizing in-kind benefits was "clearly insufficient," adding that "the monitoring of the law's fulfillment is insufficient." In remarks published in "Izvestiya" on 14 February, analyst Sergei Markov predicted it is "highly likely not only that Zurabov will be dismissed, but that he will also face corruption investigations." An article in "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 12 February alleged that Zurabov has channeled large sums of money to a select group of pharmaceutical companies, which have been authorized to supply medicines at inflated prices to pharmacies that service those qualified for free and subsidized medicine. A similar article in "Argumenty i fakty," No. 6, noted that among the 12 companies selected to supply these pharmacies is MAKS-M, for which Zurabov worked in 1994-98. JAC

Union of Rightist Forces political council member and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov announced on 14 February that he has been named an unpaid adviser to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Russian and international media reported. AFP said that Yushchenko's press service confirmed the appointment, adding that it is intended to boost relations between the two countries. Nemtsov said his role will be "to attract Russian investments" and "to help improve Ukraine's investment climate," "The Moscow Times" reported on 15 February. Nemtsov told the daily that "many of my friends and acquaintances look at Ukraine enviously. And many are considering a permanent move there should the situation here become unbearable." RC

According to "Izvestiya" on 14 February, presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Ilya Klebanov said at a meeting in Kaliningrad on 11 February that the oblast needs to be given "official status as a 'trans-border territory' [zagranichnaya territoriya]." An unidentified source told the daily that what Klebanov had in mind is the adoption of a federal law giving Kaliningrad extraterritoriality status. However, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, who was visiting the oblast at the time, said he has no idea what this means since Kaliningrad is part of Russia. "If what is meant is that Kaliningrad might begin to operate under a new legal regime, then I might begin to understand what is being talked about," he said. On 14 February, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement in response to Klebanov, noting that the status of Kaliningrad "is defined in the Russian Constitution, which does not embody the concept of 'trans-border territory' as a region's status," Interfax reported. The statement continued "the changes of the political map of Europe that have occurred in recent years, namely the enlargement of the EU,... are not sufficient reasons to review the constitutional status of this region." JAC

During their visit, Gref and Klebanov found Kaliningrad officials unprepared for the city's 750th anniversary celebration this July, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 14 February. Gref reportedly warned local officials that if the situation doesn't change by this summer then they will "lose the trust of Moscow forever." Also on 14 February, Sergei Yastrzhembskii, presidential adviser on EU issues, told RIA-Novosti that Russia and the EU have made no progress in talks on freight transit to Kaliningrad. He said that just prior to its 2004 expansion, EU officials gave written undertakings that transit conditions would not worsen after expansion, but these undertakings are not being met and costs have risen. He described the problem of freight transit as a "thorn" that irritates relations between Moscow and Brussels. JAC

The Party of Pensioners in Arkhangelsk is setting up a tent city on the city's main square, where party activists will live for two weeks to protest cuts in rent and utilities subsidies and the monetization of in-kind social benefits, reported on 14 February, citing SeverInform. One party organizer, who is also a medical doctor, called the protest a medical experiment, which if it is successful, will be continued. Weather forecasts for the city predict a high of -4 degrees Celsius and a low of -17 degrees Celsius this week. JAC

Federal Agency for Construction and Public Utilities head Vladimir Averchenko announced on 11 February that since the beginning of this year, rents and utility rates have increased by 25 percent on average, while the level set by the government was supposed to be no higher than 10 percent, RIA-Novosti reported. According to Averchenko, "in those regions where officials conducted a long-term and economically unreasonable policy of artificially holding down tariffs and not observing standards, tariffs increased sharply by 30 percent at the beginning of the year." JAC

Speaking at an expanded meeting of the council of regional leaders for the Central Federal District on 11 February, Regional Development Minister Vladimir Yakovlev declared that the government's immediate task should be to raise pensions and the wages of state-sector workers because of the disastrously large income gap in Russia, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 14 February. According to Yakovlev, the richest 10 percent of the population makes seven times more than the poorest 10 percent, a circumstance that "could lead to a revolutionary situation in any country." Yakovlev also commented that his ministry has reached an agreement with the Finance Ministry that federal subsidies to the regions for the purpose of assisting with housing and utilities costs will be increased from 6.6 billion rubles ($22 million) to 8.4 billion rubles this year. "In regions where tariffs have gone up by 30 percent or more, charges for services must be reduced," Yakovlev said. "The people need to understand where the rates come from -- otherwise they will go out on the streets again." JAC

President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on 14 February with visiting Romanian President Traian Basescu, Russian and international media reported. "It is very much hoped that, during my presidential mandate, I succeed in becoming one of your European friends who can phone you at any time and whom you can phone at any time," Basescu told Putin, ITAR-TASS reported. The presidents agreed that the "slump" in bilateral relations in recent years has been overcome. Basescu on 15 February called on Russia "to support Bucharest's joining in the settlement of the Transdniester problem," ITAR-TASS reported. "We believe it is a matter of security for both Russia and Romania," Basescu said. He added, however, that "it is premature to discuss any concrete steps." RC

"Kommersant-Daily" on 15 February reported that Ryazan businesswoman Natalya Suchkova has filed a suit against Ryazan Oblast Governor Georgii Shpak for allegedly reneging on promises he made in exchange for her agreeing to finance his 2004 election campaign. In her suit, Suchkova claims that she gave Shpak 48 million rubles ($1.6 million) in the form of "a no-interest loan" in exchange for a pledge to establish "business cooperation on a mutually agreeable basis" in the case of Shpak's victory in the election. Suchkova further alleges that Shpak agreed to name her deputy governor. Suchkova said that only a fraction of the money was hers, while the rest was contributed by organizations and banks on the basis of her guarantee. She said that the consortium agreed to finance the campaign because Shpak pledged to implement a development plan for the oblast that they had authored. She said that she filed her suit because the other members of the consortium are now asking for their money back. State Duma Deputy Igor Morozov (Unified Russia) said that he intends to send documents from the case to the Central Election Committee and the Prosecutor-General's Office, since the law limits spending on gubernatorial campaigns in the oblast to 8 million rubles. RC

A number of cities have closed schools because of a flu epidemic, Russian news agencies reported on 14 February. All schools in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Lipetsk, Kaliningrad, and Tyumen have been closed, according to Schools in Volgograd just reopened after being closed earlier. Thirteen cities in Russia have registered flu epidemics, reported, citing data from the Federal Consumer Protection Inspectorate. RBK reported on 14 February, citing Ivan Ushachev, vice president of the Russian Agricultural Academy, that food consumption in Russia has dropped by 22 percent over the last 15 years, largely because of Russians citizens' reduced purchasing power. According to Ushachev, only one-fifth of Russian believe they can afford the cost of buying sufficient food to meet average nutritional norms. JAC

Astrakhan Oblast's legislature confirmed on 11 February Yurii Chaplin as the governor's new representative in the Federation Council, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 14 February. Chaplin earlier served as Federation Council representative for Ryazan Oblast. Astrakhan Governor Aleksandr Zhilkin explained that he chose Chaplin because of his status within the party of power, Unified Russia. Chaplin is deputy chairman of the party's central executive political council. Chaplin replaces Konstantin Markelov, who has become the oblast's prime minister. JAC

Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis told journalists in Moscow on 14 February that dialogue between various political forces is essential in order to resolve the ongoing crisis in Chechnya, Interfax and AFP reported. At the same time, Davis said he understands the "difficulties facing the Russian government in finding people to negotiate with." He rejected Russian government criticism of the newspaper "Kommersant-Daily" for having published an interview with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in which Maskhadov called for unconditional peace talks, saying it was legitimate to offer Maskhadov that opportunity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 14 February 2005). LF

Chechen lawyer Makhmut Magomadov, who was abducted in Grozny on 20 January by men believed by human rights activists to be members of the presidential security force commanded by Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2005), returned to his home late on 12 February, Interfax reported on 14 February, citing Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseeva. Magomadov said his abductors, whose identity remains unclear, released him half an hour after snatching him, claiming they mistook him for someone else. He said that since then he had been in hiding in a neighboring North Caucasus republic. Also on 14 February, a spokesman for the human rights group Memorial rejected criticism of Memorial's activities by pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, reported. Alkhanov accused Memorial of lacking objectivity in its reporting on developments in Chechnya, and he explicitly denied Memorial's claims that Kadyrov's security force engaged in abducting Chechen civilians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2005). LF

Kaan Soyak, a Turkish businessman who co-chairs the Turkish-Armenian Business Council, invited the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) on 14 February to visit Turkey to embark on a dialogue aimed at overcoming the HHD's negative image in that country, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The HHD, one of the two junior partners in the three-party coalition government, has in the past pegged a normalization of relations with Ankara to official recognition by the Turkish government of the 1915 genocide; it also opposes opening the Armenian-Turkish border. Soyak said on 14 February that bilateral trade has increased to $120 million and could treble if the border were opened, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani reacted "positively" to a proposal made last week by visiting Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian to build a direct rail link between the two countries, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 14 February, citing Deputy Foreign Minister Gegham Garibdjanian, who recently concluded a six-year stint as Armenia's ambassador to Tehran. Khatami has ordered a feasibility study for the proposed link, which is likely to prove expensive and logistically challenging given the mountainous terrain it would traverse. LF

Armenia's National Commission for Television and Radio rejected in a 14 February tender two bids by the owner of the A1+ television station for vacant FM radio frequencies, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The two frequencies were instead awarded to two new radio stations, Auto Radio and Aurora, whose ownership is unclear. A1+, which routinely criticized the Armenian leadership, was forced off the air in April 2002 and its attempts since then to resume broadcasting have been thwarted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 3 April 2002 and 12 June, 15 and 18 July, 14 October and 30 December 2003). LF

Apparently as a result of pressure from the Czech government, Saday Nazarov, a close associate of disgraced former Prime Minister Suret Huseinov, has been released from detention but forbidden to leave Azerbaijan, CTK reported on 14 February, citing Czech Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar. Nazarov, who left Azerbaijan 10 years ago and was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic, was detained last month shortly after he arrived in Azerbaijan to visit his elderly father (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 27 January and 2 February 2005). LF

Elmar Mammadyarov traveled to Ankara last week for a two-day visit, immediately after a visit to Baku by Turkish parliament speaker Bulent Arinc, Azerbaijani media reported. Mammadyarov met on 10 February with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul and with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to discuss bilateral relations, Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, and joint energy projects including the ongoing construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil-export pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline. ITAR-TASS on 10 February cited Gul and Mammadyarov as agreeing that resolving the Karabakh conflict is one of the main preconditions for peace in the Caucasus. Also discussed was the possibility of Azerbaijani investment in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. On 11 February, Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov told journalists in Baku that the government will begin next year repaying its estimated $74 million debt to Turkey's Exim-Bank, Turan reported. LF

Speaking on 14 February at his first news conference since being sworn in two days earlier as president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh said new Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab will form a government within two weeks, Interfax reported. Bagapsh said there will be changes in the new cabinet, whose members will be selected solely on the basis of their professional qualities. Ankvab, 52, is a former Abkhaz Komsomol and Georgian Communist Party official who served in 1992-1993 as Abkhaz Interior Minister. He said he will not tolerate corruption and embezzlement within the government bureaucracy, ITAR-TASS reported, and stressed the need to develop Abkhazia's untapped economic potential, including timber, coal mining and tourism. On 15 February, Bagapsh named former Vice President Valerii Arshba as head of the presidential administration, reported. LF

UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno met in Tbilisi on 14 February with Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burdjanadze and with Irakli Alasania, head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile, to discuss the UN's involvement in seeking a solution to the Abkhaz conflict, Georgian media reported. Burdjanadze told Guehenno that while Tbilisi is ready for "peaceful dialogue," its patience if Abkhazia refuses such overtures is not "infinite." She also said economic cooperation with Abkhazia is contingent on the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons. Alasania assured Guehenno that Tbilisi is ready to guarantee the security of members of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) should that body resume its patrols of the Kodori Gorge. Those patrols were suspended in 2002 after a standoff in Kodori between Georgian and Abkhaz forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 April and 9 May 2002). UNOMIG members have been taken hostage in Kodori at least five times since 1997. None of those incidents has ever been clarified or the perpetrators brought to justice. LF

Acting on orders from President Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian Prosecutor-General's office has reopened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the murder in August 1993 of Fred Woodruff, a CIA operative seconded to the Georgian Embassy in Tbilisi, Caucasus Press reported on 15 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2004 and 24 January 2005). LF

Kazakhstan has begun draining water from its dangerously full Shardara Reservoir into lands around the Kyzylkum Canal as well as into Uzbekistan's Arnasai Basin, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazinform reported on 14 February. The government of South Kazakhstan Province, where the Shardara Reservoir is located, decided on 14 February to divert 75 cubic meters of water a second into the Kyzylkum Canal and to create additional drainage points along the canal, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Meanwhile, 14 February marks the first day of a 50-day period over which Uzbekistan has agreed to accept a total of 1.8 billion cubic meters of water from Shardara into the Arnasai Basin, Kazinform reported. Tempers are rising along with the water level. Kudaibergen Erzhan, head of the Shardara Reservoir, told Kazinform that Kyrgyzstan's and Uzbekistan's unwillingness to cooperate has worsened Kazakhstan's water problems. Meanwhile, a 12 February article in Uzbekistan's "Pravda vostoka" noted that the diversion of water from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan's Arnasai lake system has pushed the lakes to a critical level. DK

Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov told a news conference in Bishkek on 14 February that Kyrgyzstan has rejected a U.S. request to station AWACS aircraft at the U.S. air base in Manas, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Aitmatov said that the decision was based on consultations with fellow member states in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). Aitmatov said that reconnaissance aircraft are not compatible with the declared mission of the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan, which was set up to support operations in Afghanistan, ITAR-TASS reported. Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 12 February, however, that the decision to keep U.S. AWACS out of Kyrgyzstan was one of the conditions Russia's Foreign Ministry set for Aitmatov when the latter asked Moscow to support the regime of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev in the 27 February parliamentary elections. At the press conference on 14 February, Aitmatov also noted that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov will visit Kyrgyzstan in the spring, and President Vladimir Putin in July. DK

Former Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, now co-chairwoman of the opposition movement Ata-Jurt, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 14 February that she met with a number of high-ranking Russian officials during a recent trip to Moscow. Otunbaeva headed a Kyrgyz opposition delegation that met with Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov, State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev, and former Security Council Secretary Andrei Kokoshkin. Otunbaeva said that Kyrgyzstan's 27 February parliamentary elections and October presidential elections were the main topics of discussion. She described the meetings as part of a Russian policy of maintaining strong ties with CIS countries by keeping up contacts with both current authorities and opposition forces. DK

Representatives of Tajikistan's Coalition for Just and Transparent Elections, which brings together the Islamic Renaissance Party, Social Democratic Party, Socialist Party, and Democratic Party, are concerned that the composition of polling-station commissions could open the door to fraud, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 14 February. The commissions, which each include from five to 19 members and cover some 3,000 polling stations throughout the country, are formed at the behest of local authorities, and coalition members have been unable to gain any representation on them. A spokesman for the Islamic Renaissance Party said that the commissions play a decisive role in tallying results, and the lack of opposition representation makes a fair, transparent vote count doubtful. Rahmatullo Valiev, deputy head of the Democratic Party, said that local officials who are members of the ruling People's Democratic Party determine the composition of local commissions and keep out representatives of opposition parties. But Davlatali Davlatov, deputy head of the People's Democratic Party, dismissed those allegations, countering that media attention and the involvement of independent candidates render fraud virtually impossible. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in an interview with Arkadii Mar, editor in chief of the New York-based Russian-language weekly "Russkaya Amerika," that Belarus is open to foreign investment, Belarusian Television reported on 14 February. Lukashenka also expressed the government's readiness to sell land to investors for the construction of factories. "In any part of the country we cannot only give an investor the right to build [a plant] but also sell him the land," Lukashenka said. "But preferably for [introducing] new production capacities." Belarusian Television noted that readers of "Russkaya Amerika," jointly with the New York-based radio station Nash Golos (Our Voice), have declared Lukashenka the best politician of 2004. JM

Mikalay Kruchkou, a former judge of a district court in Homel, was sentenced last week to 10 years in prison for bribery, Belapan reported on 14 February. Kruchkou was caught taking a $200 bribe in September 2004. Investigators reportedly discovered it was the second bribe given to Kruchkou in exchange for a favorable ruling in a civil case. The first bribe also amounted to $200. A court officer charged in the same case was given an eight-year sentence. JM

Pro-democracy youths delivered a Valentine's Day message of love for European values to 10 Minsk-based European diplomatic missions on 14 February, Belapan reported. Later the same day, several dozen young Belarusians rallied on October Square in downtown Minsk in support of Belarus's future entry into the European Union. Police dispersed the rally but made no arrests. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told a conference of investors in Kyiv on 15 February that in the coming weeks the government will review the privatizations of 30 to 40 enterprises, Ukrainian media reported. "The list will be limited. It will be closed, meaning that nobody will be allowed to expand it," Yushchenko said. "It will include 30 to 40 facilities." Yushchenko added there will be no "mass reprivatization" in Ukraine, stressing that "from 90 to 98 percent" of businesses in Ukraine have been privatized in accordance with the legislation in force. JM

President Yushchenko has appointed former Education Minister Vasyl Kremin and former Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr Motsyk as first deputy state secretaries of the Presidential Secretariat, which is headed by State Secretary Oleksandr Zinchenko, Ukrainian media reported on 15 February. In a January decree, Yushchenko replaced the presidential administration created by former President Leonid Kuchma in 1996 with the Presidential Secretariat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005). The decree has not yet been made public, but according to the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (, the Presidential Secretariat reflects almost exactly the previous presidential administration in its bureaucratic structure. Meanwhile, Zinchenko told journalists on 15 February that the Presidential Secretariat will employ some 500 people, while the Kuchma-era administration had nearly 2,000 staffers. JM

Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko on 15 February confirmed that she, President Yushchenko, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz have signed an accord on the "distribution of powers in the executive branch," Interfax reported. "Such an accord does exist, it has been distributed," Tymoshenko said, in answer to a question about whether there is a document providing for the allocation of one-sixth of executive-branch posts to the Socialist Party, one-fourth to the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the remaining share to the Our Ukraine bloc. JM

Serbian President Boris Tadic concluded his two-day tour of Serbian enclaves in Kosova on 14 February with stops in Rahovec, Decan, and Gracanica, international and regional media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2005). Amid heavy security, he presented each enclave with a Serbian flag and called on the inhabitants not to leave. When one Serb in Decan told him, "Thanks for coming," Tadic replied, "Thanks for staying." He told Serbs in Rahovec that "the Serbian people in Kosova and Metohija are in the most difficult position of all European peoples," Metohija being a term favored by many Serbs because it alludes to former ownership of land by Serbian Orthodox monks. No major violence was reported during Tadic's tour, only isolated incidents of protesters throwing garbage or snowballs. Tadic did not meet any of Kosova's elected ethnic Albanian leaders. President Ibrahim Rugova said no statement by anyone from Belgrade will affect Kosova's future. Parliamentary speaker Nexhat Daci stressed that Serbia lost Kosova in the 1998-99 conflict and will not regain it. Albanian and some Western media drew parallels between Tadic's visit and those of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to the province in the late 1980s, which were aimed at bolstering his political ratings. One Kosovar daily described the visit as "rotten eggs and stale rhetoric." PM

Replying to an open letter by seven Serbian NGOs, Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Ministry said in a statement on 14 February that one Branislav Puhalo did provide security for war crimes indictee and former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic during the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict but does not now deal with security matters, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2005). The statement added that Puhalo is currently a captain with the army's 46th Logistics Brigade. The NGOs had asked the ministry to respond to charges by a controversial former government information officer that Puhalo is in charge of security at the Topcider army base near Belgrade, where Mladic might have been seen in October 2004. PM

In a ceremony in Brussels on 14 February, Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski presented European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso with his government's answers to the EU's questionnaire on Macedonia's readiness for membership talks, MIA news agency and other Macedonian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 October 2004, and 20 January and 1 February 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 October 2004). Buckovski said he expects Macedonia will become a candidate for EU membership by the end of this year and a full member in 2010. Barroso said the EU wants to establish closer ties with the countries of the western Balkans, with the ultimate goal of having them become EU members if they meet the criteria. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said after a meeting with Buckovski that Macedonia must now concentrate on three areas -- promoting judicial reform, fully implementing the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement, and improving the business climate. Both Barroso and Rehn declined to commit themselves to a specific membership timetable. Buckovski also met NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to discuss Macedonia's bid for NATO membership. UB

Employees of the state-owned Macedonian Railways ended their four-day strike on 11 February even though the government has not agreed to their demands, "Vreme" reported. The transport union had demanded that 750 workers who face dismissal be granted compensation. The railway's share in passenger transport is rather low, but it handles a large part of the country's international freight traffic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2002 and 18 February 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 December 2002). In other news, talks are under way between trade unions and the Transport and Communications Ministry over planned cuts of 50 percent to the ministry's staff, the private A1 TV reported on 13 February. The unions demand that local government bodies provide jobs for the ministry's former employees. UB

Senator Antonie Iorgovan of the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) announced that his party is considering suing President Traian Basescu for abuse of power and making false statements in connection with an apartment Basescu bought in 2002 at a fraction of the market prize, "Adevarul" reported on 15 February. In response to media reports, Basescu announced on 13 February that he will return the apartment, "out of respect for public opinion." Basescu bought the apartment for about $20,000 from a state fund for nationalized property, while its real worth was estimated at more than $320,000, "Evenimentul zilei" reported. UB

Jonathan Scheele, who heads the European Commission's delegation to Romania, has warned in a TV interview that the Romanian government may lose EU funding if it fails to implement laws regulating the distribution of those funds, "Jurnalul national" reported on 14 February. Scheele pointed out that rural areas will receive much more money once Romania is a full member of the EU, but that the administration still lacks mechanisms such as the Ajax system, which helps allot funds to farmers. UB

Quoting a media monitoring study carried out in January, the Electronic Media Association (APEL), which unites 29 Moldovan television and radio stations, accused the state Teleradio Moldova of being heavily biased in favor of the governing Communist Party (PCM), reported on 14 February. In its coverage, Teleradio Moldova's Moldova 1 TV station gave overwhelming priority to government representatives, such as President Vladimir Voronin or Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev, Catalina Scobioala, an expert working for APEL, told a press conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004). UB

Asked to comment on the findings of the APEL study, Teleradio Moldova's vice president, Sergiu Batog, told that APEL is part of an "NGO mafia, which represents the interests of a political party." "The director of APEL, Alexandru Dorogan, is the chief of staff of [opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc chairman and Chisinau] Mayor Serafim Urechean," Batog said. Dorogan's statement mirrors similar criticism by President Voronin, who accused Coalition 2005 -- an alliance of NGOs founded to ensure free and fair elections -- of working for the Democratic Moldova Bloc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 10 and 14 February 2005). UB

The Moldovan Prosecutor-General's Office is investigating an attack on opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca, the BBC's Romanian Service reported on 14 February, citing a PPCD press release. The incident occurred in the town of Floresti on 12 February, when three youths attacked Rosca and a PPCD candidate, Andrei Groza, while they were campaigning. When the youths started punching Groza in the face, Rosca reportedly pulled out a gun to defend his colleague, according to (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February 2005). UB

The landmark case of a Russian pensioner who took her grievances over a pension shortfall all the way to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg has empowered elderly Russians and younger activists trying to hold the Putin government to account on social welfare. The Strasbourg court's ruling in favor of Novosibirsk pensioner Lidiya Pravednaya could compel the Russian government to pay compensation to thousands of pensioners across the country, REN-TV reported on 26 January.

Yet unless more diplomatic efforts are mounted, stonewalling on the implementation on this and other European Court of Human Rights decisions could nullify the efforts of lawyers to use international mechanisms to overcome obstacles in the dysfunctional Russian justice system, lawyers say.

Pravednaya convinced the court that in the late 1990s the Pension Fund improperly shorted her pension, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 January. It was the first case of a Russian pensioner being able to obtain a pension with the help of the European Court, "Kommersant-Daily" wrote. Pravednaya's case has been watched closely by thousands of pensioners facing both declining real pensions and poorly compensated cuts in in-kind benefits. Her court struggle had further symbolic meaning for Russians because her last name "Pravednaya" literally means "righteous" or "pious" in the Russian language.

The case hinged on a 1 February 1998 law providing for the increase of state pensions using a formula based on the citizen's salary at the time of retirement and on the average salary throughout the country, using a ratio of 0.75. Pravednaya discovered, however, that pensions were being calculated at a maximum rate of just 0.50, and that she was being cheated out of about 200-250 rubles ($7-$8) a month, reported on 27 January.

The move triggered thousands of lawsuits against the Pension Fund, and local courts, in fact, took the side of the pensioners. Already in 1998, the Zayeltsov Raion Court of Novosibirsk ruled in Pravednaya's favor, instructing the local office of the Pension Fund to pay her the lost pension amounts. However, bureaucrats stalled and in 1999, the Labor Ministry issued an internal instruction to use the figure of 0.525 in calculating pensions. The Supreme Court then ruled that district courts had to review all the court decisions already made in favor of pensioners, the kind of heavy-handed action that illustrates the pressure of the executive on the judicial branch in Russia. Courts began to overturn their own decisions on pension lawsuits one by one, citing "newly discovered circumstances." Not only did the courts then affirm the Labor Ministry new formula, which contradicted the law, they began to go after pensioners for purportedly "overpaid" pensions.

Pravednaya filed her Strasbourg suit in April 2001 with the help of attorney Igor Novikov. The case hinged on the notion of "retroactive force," i.e., under generally accepted universal notions of the rule of law, a court cannot review a case already decided and apply a penalty from laws introduced after the original case was heard.

The European Court will now hand its decision in Pravednaya v. Russia to the Russian government, but it remains to be seen if it will be enforced. Pravednaya vows to follow up with another suit in the European Court for Human Rights seeking moral and material damages.

The European court has received an estimated 16,000 complaints from Russian citizens seeking justice, reported on 24 January. Russia leads the 50 members of the Council of Europe in the number of complaints filed against its government with the court. Like other international institutions, the court has been inundated with such requests due to the intense belief of Russians that justice can only be found outside their own court system. Yet only a fraction of cases submitted clear all the requirements to reach review, and still fewer reach the decision stage, to say nothing of enforcement.

While some Russian officials believe appeals to international courts are a sign of progress, since Soviet-era dissidents were often punished for such appeals, in fact persistent Russian reliance on justice meted out by foreigners is a sign of the deep dysfunction of the Russian courts. Although the concept of retroactive force is fairly widespread and established even in Russia, it appears no higher Russian court could grapple with it and face the political fallout of millions of angry pensioners.

But there is a limit to how much justice even an international venue can provide for Russian citizens. In Pravednaya's case, the court ruled that the Russian government must pay her the amount shorted from her pension from 1998-2000. However, three months after the court's ruling, the authorities evidently have still not responded or compensated Pravednaya's loss.

The Russian government is stalling, wrote on 2 February, clearly fearing the precedent of such cases and the huge demand for compensation. The European Court is due to hear another case involving Russian pensioners who were allegedly denied a hardship bonus for living in the Far North. The court also expects a huge influx of cases regarding recent changes in the social-benefits laws that replace most in-kind benefits with cash compensation payments.

The 68-year-old Pravednaya is a retired chemical engineer who worked for 40 years at a Novosibirsk factory, 22 as shop foreman. The cut in her pension cost her approximately 25,000 rubles, reported. "There was a sense of futility that no one understood you, no one listened, and the courts ignore pensioners," Pravednaya told the website.

Attorney Novikov told that such cases are not easily accepted by the court. "We had thoroughly to prepare all the papers, exhaustively cite our arguments, refer to precedents, look at similar cases reviewed by the European Court, and had to pull up all the cases of the court," Novikov said. The court does not become involved in establishing the amounts of member states' pensions, but it ruled on the legal matter of retroactive force and found that the Russian courts had deprived Pravednaya of a fair trial, based on international human rights law. The court demonstrated that the citing of "new circumstances" referenced by local courts was unlawful.

"We had a long road but we proved we were right," Pravednaya told However, contacted the Novosibirsk Pension Fund office and found that officials still had not paid Pravednaya. "We are waiting instructions from Moscow," an official of the Novosibirsk Pension Fund office told the site. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities have made no formal acknowledgement of the European Court's ruling.

A handful of court victories have been enough to inspire still more Russian citizens to turn to the European Court. One successful case was that of Anatolii Plaksin, a resident of Pyatigorsk who attempted to sue the Stavropol Tobacco Company for compensation of damages caused by a fire in his apartment that was found to have been started by a company employee. He was awarded 2,400 euros ($3,089). Anatolii Burdov, a member of a Chernobyl clean-up crew whose health has suffered as a result of that experience, was able to demonstrate that he has not been lawfully compensated and was awarded 3,000 euros. A librarian from Belgorod, Anna Ryabykh, won a lawsuit against the state-owned Sberbank for having lost her savings of 11,674 rubles, and she was awarded $27,300.

Lidiya Tumasova, a pensioner from St. Petersburg, was able to get the court to agree to review her case involving disputed common space in her apartment building to determine if she could continue to use the building's attic to dry her laundry.

Human rights activists say European institutions have little leverage to compel the Russian authorities to implement their decisions. "These problems are resolved through diplomatic means," lawyer Pavel Astakhov told "The Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly will be regularly noting the failure to implement the court's decisions, and in an extreme case could threaten expulsion from the Council of Europe."

During a session on 14 February, the cabinet discussed upcoming parliamentary elections, Radio Afghanistan reported. Besmellah Besmel, head of the Independent Election Commission, submitted a report on preparations for the polls, including setting a date for the election; conducting a census; allocating seats to provincial representatives; defining electoral district boundaries; working on ways to measure public opinion; deciding on ways to include candidates representing Afghan refugees and nomads living abroad; and conducting background checks on candidates. The cabinet decided to form a commission headed by Second Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili to compare a new census, "carried out on the basis of assumptions by the Statistics Department," with the country's previous census. A second commission, led by Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari, was tasked with looking at the possibility of postponing district council elections and working on the procedures for distribution of seats in the upper house of parliament. Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, which were originally slated for June 2004, had been rescheduled for the month of Saur 1384 in the Afghan calendar (20 April-21 May 2005) but may be delayed again because of procedural issues (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 January 2005). AT

Speaking during a ceremony in Kabul on 13 February marking a change in command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO officials urged Afghanistan to decide on a date for the parliamentary elections, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2005). "We count on the Afghan government and the international agencies involved to decide as soon as possible on the election time schedule," said German General Gerhard Beck, the commander of NATO's Allied Joint Forces Command, who has overall command of ISAF operations. Hikmet Cetin, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said if the election is delayed beyond the first week of July, it might conflict with the next rotation of ISAF troops, which takes place every six months. If it is not possible to hold the election before the first week of July, Cetin said it would be better to postpone the vote "until September and beyond." AT

Representatives of 17 political parties told a news conference in Kabul on 14 February they want to amend the current Afghan constitution, Radio Afghanistan reported. The party representatives proposed amending articles 159 and 160 of the constitution in order to "create an open political atmosphere for the participation of political parties" in provincial councils and districts elections. Party representatives argued the provisions in the constitution were written in an emergency situation and need to be changed. The report was unclear as to what changes are being proposed, however. The two articles in question deal with the possibility of holding the presidential election before parliamentary polls and enumerate some of the powers of the president in the interim period before the formation of a parliament. The provisions are of a transitional nature, however, and should not apply to future Afghan elections. AT

Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters in Kabul on 14 February that talks with the neo-Taliban are producing good results, with better outcomes expected in the near future, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Khalilzad reiterated his previous call for the neo-Taliban to lay down their weapons and join the Afghan government. In a related story, the Peshawar daily "Wahdat" on 12 February, quoting an unidentified source in the U.S.-led coalition, reported that several neo-Taliban leaders have contacted the Afghan government and want to assist in the reconstruction process and join the political process. The issue of reconciliation with most members of the neo-Taliban was raised by President Hamid Karzai in a speech in April 2003 and has been discussed by Khalilzad since April 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003 and 28 April, 25 October, 8 November, and 8 and 17 December 2004). AT

Tehran Police Chief Brigadier General Morteza Talai said at least 59 people were killed and more than 250 were injured in a fire at Tehran's Arg Mosque on 14 February, IRNA reported. The blaze started when a female worshipper's chador, or shawl, was ignited by a heater, and the flames transferred to a curtain separating the men's and women's sections of the mosque, state television reported. Witnesses told state television the mosque's narrow exits hampered escape. The injured were taken to four hospitals, and medical authorities are calling for blood donors. BS

Iran is contending with unseasonably low temperatures. Kurdistan provincial journalist Masud Kurdpur described the challenges in an interview with Radio Farda ( Temperatures are minus 25 degrees Celsius, and natural gas and electricity are not available in the towns of Mahabad, Piranshahr, and Sardasht. Locals in Mahabad demonstrated in front of the governorate, and in Saqez, where gas has been unavailable for days, people protested at the gas utility company. There also is a bread shortage, Kurdpur said, because most bakeries use gas ovens. Protesters want to know why there is a natural-gas shortage in a country with the world's second-largest gas reserves, Kurdpur said, adding that people in Miyandoab are particularly upset because gas pipelines supplying Turkey pass through the district. Officials say the cold weather is responsible for low gas pressure and advised locals to reduce their natural-gas usage. The electricity shortage is due to an explosion at a transfer station between Mahabad and Urumiyeh, which occurred because of overloaded capacity due to usage of electric heaters. BS

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said the 14 February bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and at least nine other people would "only benefit the Zionist regime," IRNA reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, "An organized terrorist structure such as the Zionist regime has the capacity for such an operation, whose aim is to undermine the unity of Lebanon," AFP reported. Assefi urged the Lebanese people to "prevent the Zionist regime from carrying out its sinister and expansionist projects in the region." President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami offered his condolences in a cable to his Lebanese counterpart, Emil Lahud, IRNA reported. Al-Jazeera's Beirut bureau reported that it received a telephone call from the heretofore unknown group Al-Nasr wa Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham (Victory and Jihad in the Greater Syria) claiming responsibility for the attack. The caller, who reportedly spoke Arabic poorly, described the incident as a suicide bombing. BS

Oppressed and Disabled Foundation chief Mohammad Foruzandeh signed an agreement on 11 February that would permit Tatneft, a firm from the Russia republic of Tatarstan, to explore for oil in Iran, IRNA reported. The contract reportedly is worth $500 million. BS

Valentine's Day coincided this year with the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the most important events on the Shi'a Muslim calendar. Nevertheless, stores in Iran were selling items connected to the romantic holiday, Radio Farda reported on 14 February. An unnamed shopkeeper told Radio Farda that the Public Establishments Office (Edareh-yi Amaken Omumi), which is affiliated with the police, banned the sale of heart-shaped goods. A young man in Tehran, who was shopping with his girlfriend, told Radio Farda it has become traditional to exchange romantic gifts on this day, although Valentine's Day is not part of the country's culture and traditions. Tehran-based journalist Ebrahim Suleimani said the event took hold in Iran six years ago. At one point, Ebrahimi said, an Iranian cleric proposed organizing an Islamic Valentine's Day that would commemorate the anniversary of the marriage of the first Shi'a imam with the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Nothing came of the idea. BS

Iraqi National Congress (INC) head Ahmad Chalabi said on 14 February that he is in the running for the post of prime minister, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Chalabi said in a press statement obtained by the satellite news channel, "I am supported by many of the winners in the elections and also by the United Iraqi Alliance." He acknowledged he is competing against Finance Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Vice President Ibrahim al-Ja'fari for the position, adding that United Iraqi Alliance co-creator Husayn al-Shahristani has pulled out of the running. KR

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), issued a statement on the SCIRI website ( on 13 February calling on all Iraqis to work toward justice, security, peace, and fraternity as they move forward in rebuilding their country. He also thanked the Iraqi people for casting their ballots in the election "in confrontation with the forces of evil and terrorism" and Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, "who has protected all colors of the Iraqi people and helped them realize this immense historic accomplishment." Al-Hakim vowed that elected officials will not forget the trust bestowed upon them by the electorate, adding, "We need to work with great effort and using all the potential at our disposal in order to serve" the Iraqi people. KR

Militants in Iraq have released Turkish businessman Kahraman Sadikoglu after nearly two months in captivity following the payment of a ransom, Reuters reported on 15 February. Sadikoglu was kidnapped in the port of Umm Qasr in December along with a boat captain, driver, and bodyguard. His wife told Reuters that the family paid a ransom of "less than $1 million" to secure her husband's release. She claimed the hostage takers were a criminal group with no "religious or ideological motivation." Sadikoglu heads Dubai-based Marine Contractors, which has a $25 million contract to remove 19 sunken ships from the port (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 15 October 2004). KR

The recent security conference in Munich apparently focused on speculation that militants loyal to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi may head in greater numbers to Afghanistan in the coming months, Germany's ddp news agency reported on 14 February. "We have been observing for some time now that more and more terrorists from Iraq are going over mainly to the south of Afghanistan," an unnamed U.S. intelligence officer told the agency. The militants will reportedly focus on destabilizing Afghanistan ahead of parliamentary elections, scheduled for April or May but expected to be postponed. Participants at the security conference also reportedly focused on a December CIA report that expressed concern that "Afghanistan could replace Iraq as the fruitful ground for militant Islamists," replacing the old Al-Qaeda leadership with "experienced fighters" from Iraq. The news agency also cited intelligence sources in Munich as saying the neo-Taliban and Osama bin Ladin want to use al-Zarqawi to take further action against NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan and regain control of the Hindu Kush. KR

The U.S. Senate's subcommittee on investigations has said it has documents showing that former UN oil-for-food chief Benon Sevan may have made as much as $1.2 million from illicit oil sales, reported on 14 February. The documents name Sevan as the "allocated party" for the right to sell oil contracts, rather than the African Middle East Petroleum Company, Reuters reported. Sevan was already named in an independent UN investigation, headed by Paul Volcker, as having solicited Iraqi oil on behalf of his friend, who owns the petroleum company. The Volcker report did not find that Sevon personally benefited from the vouchers, however. Senate investigators told the media in a briefing on 14 February that documents obtained from the Iraqi Oil Ministry after the fall of Saddam Hussein also show the regime bribed a UN-contracted inspector to allow illicit oil shipments under the program, Reuters reported. The inspector, Armando Carlos Oliveira, allegedly forged shipping documents allowing a tanker to "top off" with 500,000 barrels more oil than recorded on its manifest. KR