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Newsline - February 18, 1997


IZVESTIYA ACCUSES STROEV OF CORRUPTION.
Izvestiya on 15 February charged that Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev is trying to use his influence to gain ownership rights to at least two valuable properties that may be privatized. Stroev has asked President Boris Yeltsin to hand over the "Polimer" factory that provides unique and essential defense products to a financial industrial group controlled by his associates. In 1995, this factory was included on a list of enterprises of national significance whose stock cannot be sold. Stroev wants that decision rescinded. Stroev has also asked the president to transfer control of 91% of the state-owned Tyumen Oil Company (TNK) to an "authoritative group of leaders" who manage Rosinvestneft. The paper compared Stroev's actions to former Presidential Security Service chief Aleksandr Korzhakov's December 1994 attempts to influence the country's oil export policies. -- Robert Orttung

YELTSIN BACKS RODIONOV.
President Yeltsin on 17 February dismissed rumors that he plans to sack Defense Minister Igor Rodionov as "absolutely unfounded," Russian Public TV (ORT) reported. The media have focused on differences of opinion between Rodionov and Defense Council Secretary Yurii Baturin over military reform and funding issues and speculated that the defense minister would be removed. Prior to a meeting with Rodionov, Yeltsin acknowledged that the two defense chiefs do not always agree, observing that "various points of view can exist but the president will decide finally which to choose." Yeltsin and Rodionov discussed military financing, combat readiness, and possible personnel changes in army command, Russian agencies reported. Meanwhile, Duma Defense Committee Chairman Lev Rokhlin argued that the country's leadership does not have the political will to implement reform, NTV reported. He also criticized the Defense Council's reform proposals as "lacking in economic substance," according to ITAR-TASS. -- Penny Morvant

DOES YELTSIN'S WIFE WANT HIM TO QUIT?
President Yeltsin's wife has urged her husband to resign and devote more attention to his health, Komsomolskaya pravda reported on 17 February, adding fuel to the rumours that Yeltsin's condition is worse than his aides are willing to admit. The newspaper claimed that Yeltsin is withdrawing into his family, and becoming increasingly less accessible even to his immediate entourage. Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii called the article "utter nonsense," and refuted the newspaper's assertion that he himself has not seen the president for weeks. Meanwhile, First Deputy State Duma Speaker Aleksander Shokhin, who is generally loyal to the president, said Yeltsin's 6 March address to the parliament will prove whether he is capable of ruling the country, NTV reported on 17 February. -- Nikolai Iakoubovski

GOVERNOR LEBED REFUSES TO SIGN POWER SHARING AGREEMENT.
Khakasiya Governor Aleksei Lebed, Aleksandr Lebed's younger brother, has refused to sign the draft power sharing agreement between Khakasiya and the Russian Federation prepared by his predecessor, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 February. Lebed said that he would study the experiences of other republics and regions that have signed similar agreements before preparing a new draft. Following his election on 22 December, Lebed ordered an audit of the previous administration's work in an effort to uncover any wrongdoing. -- Robert Orttung

YANDARBIEV PUTS SCREWS ON MASKHADOV.
Some 300 members of the armed presidential guard created by former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev staged a demonstration outside the Grozny mayor's office on 16 February to protest President Aslan Maskhadov's decision to combine the posts of president and prime minister, ITAR-TASS and Rabochaya tribuna reported. Yandarbiev's supporters demanded that field commander Ruslan Gilayev continue to hold the post of prime minister and that field commander Shamil Basaev be appointed defense minister. On 17 February, Central Electoral Commission Chairman Mumadi Saidayev announced that the second round parliament elections held in several districts on 15 February was valid, and that 30 more deputies have been elected. New elections will be held within two months in those districts where turnout was below 50%. -- Liz Fuller

LATVIAN PARLIAMENT DELEGATION IN MOSCOW.
Visiting Saeima Chairman Alfreds Cepanis on 17 February agreed with State Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev that both countries should abandon the residual Cold War elements in their bilateral relations, BNS reported. The two sides agreed that the main outstanding problems between the two states--the Russian-speaking population of Latvia and the border issue--should be resolved through negotiations. Russian Ambassador to Riga Aleksandr Udaltsev noted that Cepanis's visit should be regarded as the first step toward resuming a political dialogue in advance of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valerii Serov's anticipated 27 February visit to Riga. Serov heads the Russian delegation of the Russian-Latvian intergovernmental commission. -- Saulius Girnius

PLAN TO DISPOSE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS.
Russia is moving ahead with plans to build a facility at Shchuche in Kurgan Oblast to dispose of its chemical weapons, Russian TV (RTR) reported on 17 February. Stanislav Petrov, the commander of the Russian radiation, chemical, and biological defense troops, said that the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission agreed on 8 February that the U.S. will pay for the construction of the plant, ITAR-TASS reported. Russia has some 40,000 metric tons of chemical munitions, mostly stored at sites in Udmurtiya and the Saratov, Bryansk, and Kurgan oblasts, which should be destroyed by 2005 under the 1993 Paris convention. The Kurgan facility is being opposed by local residents and politicians. A factory for the disposal of chemical weapons was built near the city of Chapaevsk 10 years ago, but local opposition prevented it from coming into operation. On 27 December, the State Duma passed a bill on funding the disposal of chemical weapons, but the Federation Council vetoed the measure on 23 January. -- Peter Rutland

OFFICIAL SAYS NO EXECUTIONS SINCE AUGUST 1996.
Presidential Clemency Commission Chairman Anatolii Pristavkin reaffirmed on 17 February that no executions have been carried out in Russia since August last year and urged the Duma to pass legislation confirming the de facto moratorium, international agencies reported. He added, however, that prisoners whose death penalties have been commuted are kept in "exceptionally rough and inhumane conditions" in two camps in northern Russia. The same day, Deputy Duma Speaker Aleksandr Shokhin also called for a moratorium on executions to allow "calm discussion" of the issue of abolishing capital punishment without fear that Russia could be expelled from the Council of Europe. Russia undertook to halt executions when it joined the Council last year, and it has been sharply criticized for failing to meet its obligations (see OMRI Daily Digest, 30 and 31 January 1997). Fifty-three people were executed in the first six months of 1996. -- Penny Morvant

GOSKOMSTAT RELEASES WAGE, EMPLOYMENT DATA.
The average monthly salary in Russia was 870,000 rubles ($155) in January, 10% higher than a year earlier after adjustment for inflation, ITAR-TASS reported on 14 February, citing the State Statistics Committee. The January figure was 17% down on the previous month, as pay packets are generally higher in December because of end-of-year bonuses. Unemployment (estimated from household survey data) was 9.5% by late January, up from 9.3% the previous month. Wage arrears also continued to climb. As of 27 January, Russian workers were owed 48.60 trillion rubles in delayed wages,. up 3% from 47.15 trillion in late December; late payments from the budget accounted for 9.48 trillion of the arrears. -- Penny Morvant

TEACHERS' PROTEST RENEWED.
Renewing a national protest begun in mid-January, education workers in 86 of Russia's 89 regions staged strikes and demonstrations on 17 February to demand the payment of about 7 trillion rubles in overdue wages, NTV and ORT reported. Only teachers in Moscow, Samara, and the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug are receiving all their pay on time. The teachers sent an open letter to Yeltsin calling for the resignation of the government and threatening to disrupt examinations, RTR reported. Following a meeting between government officials and union representatives, Education Minister Vladimir Kinelev said teachers should address their demands to local authorities, since schools are financed from regional budgets, but he promised that the government would allocate funds to the worst-hit areas. Strikes, mostly over wage arrears, occurred at 5,716 enterprises and organizations in January--a 170% increase on figures for January 1996, Izvestiya reported. -- Penny Morvant

TAX POLICE INTENDS TO CREATE RAPID RESPONSE UNITS.
The Russian tax police has announced that it will set up special rapid response groups to carry out inspections of banks and financial-industrial groups (FPGs), ITAR-TASS reported on 14 February. A spokesman for the tax police said that the groups will check accounts of both mother-companies and their branches. He noted that it is the existence of multi-level organizational and functional networks that allows banks and FPGs to conceal large amounts of their taxable profits. As of 1 January 1997, tax arrears to the federal budget totaled 68.1 trillion rubles (1.8% of GDP), 130% up over the beginning of 1996, Rossiiskaya gazeta reported on 15 February. -- Natalia Gurushina

DUMA OPPOSES PRIVATIZATION OF EES ROSSII.
The Duma has passed a bill that would prohibit the privatization of the energy giant EES Rossii (United Power Grid of Russia), Kommersant-Daily reported on 14 February. The bill was adopted one month after a consortium of Russian commercial banks led by Natsionalnyi rezervnyi bank won an investment auction for a 8.5% equity stake in EES Rossii. Duma deputies expect the law will help prevent the sale of the remaining 51% federal equity stake. The government, however, argues that such a law would contravene the constitution, according to which the management of federal property falls under the jurisdiction of the government. The parliamentarians say that the management of federal property is a separate issue from the ownership of such property, which they argue should be governed by federal laws. -- Natalia Gurushina


TAJIK HOSTAGE CRISIS OVER, WITH APOLOGIES.
The two-week Tajik hostage crisis ended without further incident on 17 February following high-level talks between Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, representatives of hostage taker Bahrom Sadirov, and a Russian embassy official, Western and Russian media reported. No details on the agreements have been released. According to one Russian media report, Sadirov hopes to participate in the peace talks between the government and the opposition as a so-called third force. Before the drama ended, Sadirov's representative apologized to "Russia and the world community" for the hostage taking, explaining that he had no other means of bringing his fellow fighters back from Afghanistan. None of the hostages were hurt, contrary to earlier reports that one of them had been killed. -- Lowell Bezanis

MORE ON RUSSIAN ARMS SUPPLIES TO ARMENIA.
Russian Ambassador to Yerevan Andrei Urnov told Noyan Tapan on 17 February that the Russian arms being sent to Armenia are designated for use at Russia's military bases there in accordance with existing bilateral military agreements. Urnov said he does not know of any illegal arms transfers. On 14 February, Russian Minister for Relations with the CIS Aman Tuleev claimed that Armenia has illegally received some 270 billion rubles ($50 million) worth of arms from Russia (not 270 million rubles as erroneously reported by Noyan Tapan on 15 February and OMRI Daily Digest on 17 February). The Azerbaijani Embassy in Moscow issued a statement expressing concern at "the continuing practice of illegal arms shipments to Armenia" which it said "undermines efforts to settle the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan by peaceful means," according to a 16 February Interfax report monitored by the BBC. -- Liz Fuller

KAZAKSTANI UPDATE.
Kazakstani Transport and Communications Minister Yurii Lavrinenko signed an agreement on expanding economic cooperation with his Iranian counterpart during a visit to Tehran, according to a 17 February Iranian TV report monitored by the BBC. Lavrinenko described Iran as the "most important and most strategic country in the region." In other news, Kazakstani authorities are hunting down dozens of former prisoners amnestied in 1996 and imprisoning them without trial, AFP reported on 17 February. Officials claim some of the 19,000 prisoners released on 30 January 1996 were not meant to be freed. Jumabek Busurmanov, head of the governmental Human Rights Committee, has criticized the Western groups that protested the illegal, retroactive nature of the undertaking. Meanwhile, Russia remains in arrears with Kazakstan to the tune of $115 million over the use of the Baikanour space station, RFE/RL reported on 18 February. -- Lowell Bezanis and Merhat Sharipzhan

MOBIL, MONUMENT IN TURKMENISTAN.
Mobil Exploration and Producing Turkmenistan, Inc. have joined the UK-based Monument Oil and Gas in a production-sharing agreement with the government of Turkmenistan to explore and develop oil and gas opportunities in the Nebit-Dag license area, RFE/RL reported on 17 February. The two companies also reached an agreement with Ashgabat for the exclusive right to negotiate a production-sharing agreement covering most of the country's onshore oil-producing region, which is some 18,000 sq. km in size. The first deal applies to a 2,000 sq. km area. -- Lowell Bezanis


UKRAINE TO REMOVE FUEL FROM DAMAGED REACTOR.
Ukrainian Environment Minister Yurii Kostenko said Ukraine will not build a new sarcophagus for the destroyed reactor No. 4 at Chornobyl, international agencies reported on 17 February. Speaking after the latest round of talks with the G-7 on Chornobyl, Kostenko said international experts would work out how to remove the radioactive fuel. The talks made no final decision on how to compensate Ukraine for the loss of energy after the Chornobyl power plant's planned closing in 2000. Kostenko reiterated warnings that the date of Chornobyl's closing depends on the beginning of foreign assistance. -- Oleg Varfolomeyev

KAZAKSTANI FOREIGN MINISTER IN UKRAINE.
Kasymzhomart Tokayev arrived in Ukraine for a three-day visit on 17 February, Ukrainian radio reported. Tokayev met with his Ukrainian counterpart Hennadii Udovenko and with President Leonid Kuchma. The purpose of the visit is to stimulate relations between the two countries in accordance with an agreement signed in September 1994. Emphasis was placed on developing economic cooperation and trade. On the first day, the two sides discussed energy supplies, news agencies reported. -- Ustina Markus

CRIMEAN PARTIES APPEAL TO KYIV, MOSCOW.
The Crimean branch of the Ukrainian Republican Party called on Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to dismiss the Crimean parliament, Ukrainian television reported on 17 February. The appeal said the current governors "are not able to solve the most vital problems." Earlier a pro-Russian Crimean organization known as the Russian Duma of Sevastopol came out against setting up a free economic zone in the city until the city's status is resolved, UNIAN reported on 14 February. The organization appealed to the Russian Federation Council to speed up work on the status of Sevastopol and blasted the "hidden Ukrainization" of the city through Ukrainian-language schools and "tiny pro-Ukrainian organizations." -- Oleg Varfolomeyev

JOURNALISTS PROTEST CLOSURE OF INDEPENDENT RADIO STATION IN BELARUS.
Some 20 journalists held a demonstration in Minsk on 14 February to protest the closure of the independent Radio 101.2 FM station by the government last September, Belapan reported. The official explanation was that the station interfered with government communications, but journalists believe that was only a pretext, as the government had turned down their request to move the aerial. Moreover, the government intends to use the frequency for a youth station under the patronage of the pro-presidential organization Direct Action. -- Sergei Solodovnikov

NORWEGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS LITHUANIA.
Bjorn Tore Godal held talks in Vilnius on 17 February with his counterpart Algirdas Saudargas, Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius, and Seimas Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, Radio Lithuania reported. Godal noted that even though Norway twice refused to join the EU, it supports the efforts of the Baltic states to do so, as that is necessary for Baltic security. He said NATO's door should be open to all democratic states and that "Russian fears concerning NATO's enlargement to the East are groundless." -- Saulius Girnius

POLISH-RUSSIAN POLITICAL UPDATE.
Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said he is not alarmed about Internal Affairs Minister Zbigniew Siemiatkowski's statements that Russia is infiltrating Polish politics to prevent Polish entry into NATO and the EU (see OMRI Daily Digest, 17 February 1997). "Such things are possible," Cimoszewicz said. He said he expects "tensions concerning NATO enlargement to intensify" before the NATO summit in Madrid in July. A spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service said on 17 February the accusations are "absolute fantasy." Friedrich Bonnart, editor of NATO 16 Nations magazine, said the Poles should not be astonished that the Russians would use all legal and illegal means to prevent NATO expansion, Polish dailies reported on 18 February. -- Jakub Karpinski

POLES ON THE CONSTITUTION ISSUE.
More than a quarter of respondents said they would vote in a referendum for the Solidarity-sponsored draft constitution, while a quarter would support parliament's draft constitution, Polish media reported on 18 February. The proposal by Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) to submit both drafts in a referendum--contrary to the current law--is supported by 67% of respondents. More than 40% of those surveyed think that a future parliament should approve a new constitution; 33% think the current parliament should. The AWS wants a future constitution to include a more explicit reference to God, protection of human life from conception, and recognition that Poland under communist rule was not a sovereign country. It demands that a referendum on the constitution be valid if at least half the voters turn out. -- Beata Pasek

CZECH-GERMAN DECLARATION PASSED WITH PREAMBLE.
The Czech Chamber of Deputies passed the Czech-German declaration on 14 February, with 131 of the lower house's 200 deputies voting in favor of the document, Czech media reported. The governing coalition managed to secure the support of most Social Democratic deputies by accepting at the last minute a one-sentence preamble to the declaration. The preamble states that the chamber accepts the declaration on the basis of speeches by Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec, which expressed the will of both states to prevent the past from burdening a common European future. Social Democratic Chairman Milos Zeman had been pushing for a preamble that would emphasize that the Czechs refuse to deal with questions such as restitution for expulsed Sudeten Germans. But the compromise preamble is so watered down as to have no effect on the declaration from the German standpoint. -- Victor Gomez

CZECH MINISTERS AGREE ON NEW HEALTH-CARE SYSTEM.
After a 16 February meeting of select cabinet ministers on the health-care system, Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus announced that next year the government will introduce a per-patient system to pay doctors, Czech media reported. Under the system, doctors will be paid according to how many patients they have on their rosters, rather than according to each treatment they perform as in the current system. Klaus has long supported a system in which each patient would be partially responsible for payment, though he no longer insists on it. -- Victor Gomez

SLOVAK POLITICAL ROUNDUP.
Leaders of the opposition Democratic Union and Social Democratic Party on 17 February signed an agreement on political cooperation, Slovak media reported. DU Chairman Jozef Moravcik said the document focuses on completing the transformation of Slovak society, building and maintaining the rule of law, and completing the economic transformation. The two parties aim to set an example of how to bridge disputes between the left and right wings of the opposition. Also on 17 February, Slovak National Party deputy Jozef Prokes told CTK that a bill on minority languages could be submitted to the parliament within six months. Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement deputy Gyula Bardos told Sme the next day that the Hungarian coalition does not have any information about the bill. -- Sharon Fisher

HUNGARY, ROMANIA BOOST MILITARY TIES.
In Debrecen, Hungary, Hungarian Defense Minister Gyorgy Keleti and Romanian Defense Minister Victor Babiuc on 17 February signed an accord on the protection of military secrets, Reuters reported. The two ministers also agreed to set up a joint peacekeeping battalion for use with NATO, the UN, and the OSCE. The battalion, scheduled to be operational by the end of the year, will have bases in both countries, with joint command and joint exercises. The two ministries will have periodical consultations on military matters. Referring to NATO enlargement, Keleti said the two countries are partners, not competitors. It was Babiuc's first visit abroad. Analysts view the recent improvement of bilateral ties as boosting both countries' chances of joining NATO in an early phase. -- Zsolt Mato

HUNGARIAN PRIME MINISTER ON PRIVATIZATION SCANDAL.
Appearing before the parliamentary committee investigating last fall's privatization scandal involving consultant Marta Tocsik, Gyula Horn on 17 February distanced himself from the affair, Hungarian media reported. Horn said his government reacted swiftly, firing the top leadership of the state privatization agency and the minister overseeing privatization. Free Democrat leader Ivan Peto told the committee he was unaware of the business activities of certain key figures in the affair who have connections to his party. -- Sharon Fisher


MUSLIMS RETURN TO WEST MOSTAR, CROATS EVICTED FROM EAST MOSTAR.
UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko said that 23 of 28 Muslim families expelled from Croat-held Mostar last week have returned to their homes, Oslobodjenje reported on 18 February. The other five families feared to return. He said the UN police were satisfied with the west Mostar police's help in bringing Muslim families back. Police and members of the Croat special forces are believed to have been directly involved in the evictions of Muslims. Ivanko said the UN was concerned, however, about reports of the first expulsion of a Croat family from Muslim-held east Mostar. Meanwhile, another grenade exploded in Mostar on 16 February; no one was injured. -- Daria Sito Sucic

A NEW WAY TO GET BOSNIAN REFUGEES HOME?
Michael Steiner, the deputy to the international community's High Representative Carl Bildt, said a new, radical approach may be needed to get Bosnian refugees home, Reuters reported. To date, practically no individuals have been able to return to territory under the control of another ethnic group, despite their right to do so under the Dayton accord. Steiner said on 17 February: "If as much energy were put into organizing the return of refugees [on a trade-off basis] as has been put by the OSCE into organizing elections, perhaps by having an R-Day or Return Day instead of an E-Day or Election Day, then we could achieve far more than we have with pilot projects which don't work because they lack internal balance." -- Patrick Moore

BOSNIAN ROUNDUP.
The OSCE's top election official, Robert Frowick, talked with Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic in Banja Luka about problems in organizing local balloting in July in Brcko and Mostar, AFP reported on 17 February. In Sarajevo, the World Bank announced that the planned donors' conference has been postponed until April because the Bosnian government has yet to set up a basic economic reform package. Also in the capital, the leading Islamic religious body, the Rijaset, condemned the recent desecration of a Roman Catholic cemetery in Klopce near Zenica, Oslobodjenje wrote on 18 February. SFOR, for its part, denied Croatian charges that it had used excessive force in entering the Rama power plant near Prozor while searching for illegal weapons, Dnevni avaz reported. And Oslobodjenje noted that the respective police forces of the three main ethnic groups have been continuing the war among themselves and also terrorizing citizens. -- Patrick Moore

CROATIA GUARANTEES SAFETY TO EASTERN SLAVONIA SERBS.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman on 17 February met with the head of the UN Transitional Authority for Eastern Slavonia, Jacques Klein, and a local Serbian leader, Vojislav Stanimirovic, to discuss the process of the peaceful reintegration of the region and an amnesty issue, Hina reported. Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Kostovic said that Tudjman guaranteed Serbs there would be no revanchism. But Klein requested that a final list of war criminals be issued by the Croatian government so that people who were not on the list knew they could stay in the area. Last year Croatia issued an incomplete list of 811 accused war criminals. -- Daria Sito Sucic

ECONOMIC DEMANDS REPLACE POLITICAL ONES IN SERBIAN CAPITAL.
While the opposition Zajedno coalition has called off its mass demonstrations for three weeks to allow the ruling Socialists to make concessions such as freeing up the state media, protests continued in Belgrade on 17 February, Nasa Borba reported the following day. The demands, however, have shifted: independent professionals, notably teachers, were demanding their back wages. In addition, the city's transportation workers staged another warning strike on 17 February, cutting service on about a quarter of the city's bus lines and leaving thousands of commuters stranded. Transportation sector labor leaders have said they will back a full-scale shut down of the city's public transportation system on 18 February if there is no progress on salary demands. -- Stan Markotich

SERBIAN OPPOSITION LEADER ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL?
Vuk Draskovic, a leader of the Zajedno coalition and head of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), told the Daily Telegraph that if he were elected president of Serbia, he would work for the restoration of the Karadjorevic dynasty, Nasa Borba reported on 18 February. Following the restoration of the monarchy, Draskovic would retire from politics and devote himself full-time to writing. So far, however, Draskovic has not been designated the united opposition's presidential candidate in the election slated for later this year. -- Stan Markotich

POSSIBLE BREAKTHROUGH ON SLOVENIAN GOVERNMENT DEADLOCK.
Premier Janez Drnovsek on 17 February announced he had reached an accord on forming a cabinet that would include members of his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDS), the right-wing Slovenian People's Party (SLS), and the small Democratic Pensioners' Party (DESUS), Radio Slovenija reported. Elections were held on 10 November, and an earlier proposal was rejected by parliament on 6 February. A rejection of this cabinet line-up may force early elections. -- Stan Markotich

MACEDONIAN STUDENTS PROTEST AGAINST ALBANIAN-LANGUAGE EDUCATION.
About 3,000 Macedonian students demonstrated in Skopje on 17 February against a new law introducing teaching in the Albanian language at the teacher-training faculty. They chanted nationalist slogans, including "Gas chambers for Albanians," and threw eggs and stones at the government headquarters and the Education Ministry offices, the daily Dnevnik reported. The protesters called on Education Minister Sofija Todorova to resign, AFP said. In early February, the Macedonian parliament had voted for Albanian-language education. The opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization VMRO-DPMNE said it had appealed to the Constitutional Court over the law, arguing that the Macedonian constitution allows national minorities to be taught in their mother tongues only at primary- and secondary-school levels. -- Fabian Schmidt

CIORBEA LAUNCHES "SHOCK THERAPY" PROGRAM.
After having concluded parleys with international financing institutions and the major trade unions, Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea on 17 February presented the government's "shock therapy" program in a live televised speech. He said 3,600 state companies will be privatized in 1997; companies which are unprofitable will be closed or auctioned off. The government expects a rise in unemployment to about 8% from the current 6%. A social program negotiated with the International Monetary Fund will compensate those most affected by the measures--over 10% of the GDP will be channeled to this program. The IMF has agreed to lend Romania some $400 million for this purpose, but over the long term Romania is to receive $1 billion from international lenders. All prices, with the exception of bread, are to be immediately liberalized and the state budget will make only very limited provisions for subsidies--some of which will go to agriculture. State-owned agricultural land is also to be privatized. All banks are also to be gradually privatized. Ciorbea said he expects inflation to fall to 30% by the end of the year, down from the current 90%. -- Dan Ionescu

BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT, PRESIDENT STATE DESIRE TO JOIN NATO.
Bulgaria's caretaker government on 17 February said Bulgaria will apply for full NATO membership, Trud and Demokratsiya reported. It was the first time a Bulgarian government unequivocally spoke in favor of NATO membership. President Petar Stoyanov endorsed the government's decision, calling NATO "the only serious guarantor of security." Vladimir Topencharov of the Bulgarian Socialist Party said the decision should have been made by a cabinet elected by the parliament rather than by a caretaker government. Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Leonid Kerestedzhiyants said "the decision cannot go down without any consequences, but we will try to keep them as small as possible." He said Moscow does not see an anti-Russian attitude behind the decision. -- Stefan Krause

NEW PRICE HIKES IN BULGARIA.
Fuel prices almost tripled on 18 February, Pari and RFE/RL reported. The government made the move to bring prices closer to world market prices and cut down on the losses of Bulgaria's biggest oil refinery, Neftochim in Burgas. Prime Minister Stefan Sofiyanski said drastic hikes were the only way to stabilize the economy. Officially, fuel will sell for 850-1,130 leva per liter ($0.30-$0.40), while the black market price is 10%-30% higher. Another hike might come as early as next week, experts said. The fuel shortage continues to leave public transport and road traffic paralyzed in large parts of the country. Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Rumen Hristov said grain supplies suffice for 20 days and bread prices may go up from 250 leva to 2,000 leva if grain must be imported at market conditions. -- Stefan Krause

ALBANIANS KEEP UP PROTESTS.
About 5,000 Albanians protested for a 13th day in Vlora on 17 February and several hundred in Fier, demanding government compensation after the collapse of fraudulent investment schemes. Vlora students threatened to go on a hunger strike if the demands for compensation were not met. Local representatives of political parties, including the ruling Democrats, anti-communist dissidents, and protesters signed a charter demanding the government quit and hold general elections. Mayor Gezim Zile told the crowd from a balcony that he supported their demands. The local branch of the National Commercial Bank opened for the first time in 10 days to distribute some of the frozen assets of failed pyramid schemes. -- Fabian Schmidt

INVESTMENT COMPANY OWNER TELLS ALBANIANS TO WORK.
In Tirana, Vehbi Alimucaj, head of the biggest investment holding firm, Vefa, said angry investors should "roll up their sleeves and get back to work" instead of protesting and burning down buildings, Reuters reported. Vefa froze the deposits of its 80,000 investors after five pyramids went bust last month, but Alimucaj continues to claim that his investors have nothing to fear and will get back their deposits in three or four months after the climate of insecurity has passed. Vefa continues to make interest payments. -- Fabian Schmidt

[As of 1200 CET]

Compiled by Victor Gomez and Susan Caskie



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