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KAZAKH MINISTER PRAISES CIS AIR-DEFENSE EXERCISES... Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev praised the smooth operation of the unified CIS air-defense system following command-control exercises on 7 April, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the same day. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan took part in the exercises, which were intended to test the unified system's command-control coordination. Russian Air Force commander Vladimir Mikhailov, who directed the exercises, told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 8 April that "we confirmed that control over the unified CIS air-defense system functions reliably." DK

...AND SAYS KAZAKH PEACEKEEPERS TO LEAVE IRAQ BY JUNE. Defense Minister Altynbaev said on 7 April that Kazakh peacekeepers in Iraq are staying in camp amid recent unrest and will depart when their term of service expires on 30 May, Khabar Television reported the same day. Noting that the service term will soon expire, Altynbaev added, "That is why we have proposed that we not send another contingent to Iraq after this one." The first group of 27 Kazakh peacekeepers arrived in Iraq in August and were replaced by an equal number in early 2004. According to Interfax, they are under the command of Ukraine's 6th Detached Mechanized Brigade. DK

RIFT OPENS WITHIN BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION. Three opposition groups -- the European Coalition Free Belarus, the Young Belarus bloc, and the Respublika group in the Chamber of Representatives -- have accused a fourth of obstructing efforts to unite democratic efforts in the run-up to this fall's parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 16 March 2004), Belapan reported on 7 April. The accusation was directed at the Popular Coalition Five Plus, whose leaders reportedly ignored consultations with the three other groups scheduled for 5 April. "I think the so-called Coalition Five Plus is seeking to split the democratic movement," Mikalay Statkevich of the European Coalition Free Belarus said. "We are ready to cooperate with all democratic forces," said Belarusian Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin, whose party makes up part of the Popular Coalition Five Plus. "But we have rejected their proposal to create a new political [alliance under a new name] and a new election platform. We have no time to enter into new negotiations." JM

UKRAINIAN LAWMAKERS SET TO VOTE ON CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS... The Verkhovna Rada on 8 April launched final debate on a hotly contested constitutional-reform bill that, if approved, would shift the center of power in Ukraine from the presidency to the prime minister and parliament (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 6 April and 10 February 2004 and 23 December 2003), Interfax and UNIAN reported. Voting on the bill could come as soon as later the same day. The previous day the legislature decided that lawmakers will vote on the bill in its entirety in a roll-call vote via the electronic voting system. In theory, the pro-government coalition -- along with the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, which supported the bill preliminarily in December and February -- control the 300 votes required for approval. However, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz said on 8 April that his parliamentary caucus (20 deputies) will take its final stance on the bill only following the debate. The 450-seat Verkhovna Rada currently has 449 deputies. The opposition Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc caucuses, which oppose the constitutional reforms, have a combined 119 deputies. Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko said on 7 April that he doubts the backers of the bill will be able to muster 300 votes for its approval. JM

...AS PROTESTERS GATHER OUTSIDE PARLIAMENT. On 7 April, Our Ukraine called for a protest rally in front of the parliamentary building during final debate and possibly voting on 8 April over a controversial constitutional-reform bill, Interfax and UNIAN reported. The Our Ukraine press service claimed the rally, part of a wider protest "marathon" called "Yes to Well-Being, No to Dictatorship," would attract 4,000 people. Demonstrators, who began gathering before parliament early on 8 April, held placards with slogans protesting the constitutional reforms and demanding wage and pension hikes. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT APPROVES LOCAL-ELECTION BILL. President Leonid Kuchma signed a bill on local elections into law on 8 April, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The bill, which was adopted on 6 April and will come into force on 1 October 2005, mandates a majority system for rural councils and a proportional party-list system for all other councils in Ukrainian local elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 April 2004). According to some reports, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party demanded the adoption of such a bill as one of their conditions for supporting the constitutional-reform bill promoted by pro-presidential forces. Kuchma met with the leaders of parliamentary caucuses on 7 April, urging them to vote for the reforms. "I am absolutely convinced that we are not making any mistake...since we need a system of counterbalances between the legislative and executive branches," Interfax quoted Kuchma as saying. JM