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DESPITE WEEKS OF PROTESTS, LEGISLATORS AGAIN APPROVE SOCIAL-BENEFITS REFORM... State Duma deputies passed on 3 August in its second reading a controversial bill that would replace most in-kind social benefits with cash payments, Russian news agencies reported. The vote was 304 in favor with 120 against and one abstention, RIA-Novosti reported. Under the legislation, social benefits such as free public transportation enjoyed by pensioners and other categories of people, will be monetized. According to, state guarantees of social benefits for Chornobyl survivors and residents of the Far North are retained in the current version of the bill. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov told reporters that more than 1,000 amendments were made to the bill between its first and second reading, and the legislation is much improved as a result. The legislation's adoption in its second reading follows weeks of protests in Moscow and other cities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 July 2004 and 2 and 3 August 2004). The third reading is scheduled for 5 August. RosBalt reported that while deputies were considering the bill, they could dine for free at a buffet adjacent to the Duma's main hall. JAC

CIS ELECTION MONITORS ANNOUNCE PLANS FOR KAZAKH ELECTION. An association of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from five CIS states held a press conference in Almaty on 3 August to announce the start of electoral monitoring ahead of the 19 September elections, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The association is comprised of leading NGOs from Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Ukraine, and is monitoring campaigning for seats in the lower house of the Kazakh parliament. One of the association's main goals is to work in partnership with local Kazakh groups in an attempt to strengthen civil society and to help ensure free and fair elections. The associations will field 140 monitors in the country by election day. The association will also monitor the presidential elections in Ukraine in October and the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections next February. According to a 20 July decision by the Kazakh Central Election Commission, the authorities pledged to assist the work of the international election monitors and will guarantee their "right to be present at all stages of the election campaign as well as receive any information about the election process from election commissions" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 July 2004). RG

OUR UKRAINE LEADER WANTS TV DEBATE WITH MAIN PRESIDENTIAL RIVAL. Our Ukraine head Viktor Yushchenko wants to hold a television debate with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, his main rival in the 31 October presidential election, Interfax reported on 3 August, citing Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko's election staff leader. Zinchenko specified that such a debate should be moderated by an "independent" journalist and broadcast live. Meanwhile, the Razumkov Center found in a poll conducted from 22-28 July that if a presidential election had been held "next Sunday," Yushchenko would have been backed by 27.9 percent of voters, Yanukovych by 21.1 percent, Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko by 9.8 percent, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz by 6.5 percent. In regional terms, Yushchenko is supported by 50.9 percent of voters in central Ukraine, 65.6 percent in the country's western regions, 19.9 percent in the south, and 15.3 percent in the east. Yanukovych is backed by 47.4 percent of voters in the east, 37.4 percent in the south, 17.2 percent in the center, and 12.2 percent in the west. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL RACE HAS 24 PARTICIPANTS. The Central Election Commission registered National Academy of Sciences Secretary Serhiy Komisarenko as the 24th presidential candidate on 3 August, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Komisarenko may close the list of presidential candidates for the 31 October election if the commission rejects by 6 August a complaint by a contender who was refused registration on 3 August. To take part in the 31 October ballot, each registered candidate needs to submit 500,000 signatures in support of his or her candidacy by 20 September. JM

UKRAINE WANTS TO SELL 43 PERCENT STAKE IN TELECOMMUNICATIONS GIANT BY OCTOBER. State Property Fund Chairman Mykhaylo Chechetov and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mykola Azarov announced on 3 August that the government is planning to sell by 30 September a 42.86 percent stake in Ukrtelecom, the largest national telecommunications operator in Ukraine, Interfax reported. "We could receive from $600 million to $800 million, judging by offers from those investors that have announced their desire to bid," Chechetov told journalists, adding that the government has not yet finalized terms for the tender to sell the Ukrtelecom stake. Following the sale, the government will retain a 50 percent plus one share in the company. JM

TRANSDNIESTER EXTENDS RAIL BLOCKADE. The Transdniestrian separatist authorities extended on 2 August the blocking of rail links to Moldova, AP reported. The agency cited Ion Leahu, Moldova's representative on the Joint Control Commission, as saying separatist militiamen placed concrete blocks on the railway near the Tiraspol-controlled town of Bendery-Tighina. ITAR-TASS on 3 August quoted a Moldovan railway official as saying passenger trains bound from Chisinau to destinations in Russia, Ukraine, and other Commonwealth of Independent States countries had to be diverted to other routes and reached their destinations with considerable delays. Tiraspol has taken the measures in retaliation for Moldova's economic sanctions, which came into force on 1 August in response to the separatists' closure of schools teaching Moldovan (Romanian) with the Latin script (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). Infotag said the last time Tiraspol resorted to blocking the railway was during the armed conflict in the early 1990s. MS

...BUT CHISINAU SAYS SCHOOLS MUST REOPEN FIRST. Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasilii Sova said in reaction to the Russian appeal that the resumption of the five-sided negotiations is possible only after the issue of the closed schools is resolved, Infotag reported. He said the three mediators (OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine) made proposals that would make possible solving many contentious issues, including that of the closed schools. "Last week we agreed to the proposals and now Transdniester needs to do the same," Sova said. MS