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VISITING RUSSIAN OFFICIAL PLAYS DOWN GAS DISPUTE WITH BELARUS. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in Minsk on 2 February that the current difficulties over Russian gas deliveries to Belarus do not represent a conflict between Russia and Belarus but stem from "certain disagreements" between two economic entities, Russia's Gazprom and Belarus's Beltranshaz, Belapan reported (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 27 January 2004). Ivanov added that the gas-supply dispute will not affect continuing efforts to expand the Russia-Belarus Union. Ivanov and his Belarusian counterpart Syarhey Martynau reportedly approved a large-scale plan for cooperation between their ministries regarding relations with the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and other regional organizations. JM
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT REMOVES PRESIDENTIAL-ELECTION CLAUSES FROM POLITICAL REFORM... The Verkhovna Rada voted on 3 February to extract a clause prescribing the election of an "interim" president by direct election in 2004 and the subsequent parliamentary selection of a head of state from a contentious bill on political reform, UNIAN and Interfax reported. Those clauses -- contained in the bill that was preliminarily approved on 23 December (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 January 2004) -- were bitterly opposed by the opposition Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. The Socialist Party supported the amendment, while Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not take part in the vote. The amendment to exclude the presidential clauses received 304 votes in the 3 February vote in the 450-seat legislature, and could further the chances for passage of major constitutional reforms. JM
...BUT WILL THIS PLEASE THE WHOLE OPPOSITION? Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn opened a short "extraordinary" parliamentary session on 3 February that degenerated into turmoil after lawmakers from Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc protested the vote on an amendment to the constitutional-reform bill, UNIAN and Interfax reported. In a replay of several such occasions last year, lawmakers from the pro-government Social Democratic Party-united (SPDU-o) circled the parliamentary rostrum in order to prevent deputies from Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc from disrupting the debate. Opposition lawmakers responded by destroying all the microphones in the session hall and began to fling draft bills and other papers in the direction of the parliamentary presidium. One opposition deputy reportedly poured a bottle of "sweet water" on Lytvyn's head. Lytvyn managed to announce that a regular parliamentary session would open later the same day. JM