Accessibility links

Newsline - April 15, 1997




YELTSIN CALLS ON CITIZENS TO BUY RUSSIAN.

President Boris Yeltsin today called on Russians to buy domestic goods in order to spur economic growth and help create jobs. In a radio address, he said, "When we buy domestic goods, we help our country, our Russian industry, we help ourselves." But he added that the government would not resort to administrative means to limit imports, saying "there must be fair competition in Russia." Yeltsin also acknowledged that the quality of some domestic products would have to improve. Todays appeal follows a recent presidential decree ordering officials to drive Russian-made cars instead of imported models.

IRAQ RATIFIES OIL DEAL WITH RUSSIA.

The Iraqi parliament has ratified an oil contract with Moscow allowing a Russian oil consortium headed by LUKoil to develop reserves estimated at 7-8 billion barrels in Iraq's southern Qurna oil field, Reuters and AFP reported, citing Iraqi media. Iraq and Russia signed the 23-year accord last month, but Moscow has said it will not violate the current international trade sanctions on Baghdad for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Under the agreement, Russia is to spend $200 million on activities related to the project and extend credit worth $100 million to Iraq during the sanctions, the Financial Times reported today. Baghdad hopes to reap some $70 billion from the project, while Moscow hopes to recoup some of the $7 billion it is owed by Iraq.

RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTER IN CHINA.

Igor Rodionov, who is in China on an official visit, was officially welcomed yesterday by his Chinese counterpart, Chi Haotian. Chi said that China wants to move into the 21st century with Russia as good neighbors, good partners, and good friends. Today in Beijing, Gen. Liu Shunyao, commander of the air force, said China plans to modernize its air force and is looking to purchase high-technology weapons abroad.

NEMTSOV STRIKES DEAL WITH GAZPROM HEAD, PLEDGES TO PAY WAGES IN NUCLEAR SECTOR.

First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and Gazprom head Rem Vyakhirev have agreed on how to settle the gas monopolys debt to the federal government, Russian news agencies reported yesterday. No details were released about the agreement. Gazprom owes about 14.8 trillion rubles ($2.6 billion) to the budget. Meanwhile, Nemtsov has signed a protocol with Minister for Atomic Energy Viktor Mikhailov and trade union leaders on wage arrears in the nuclear energy sector, ITAR-TASS reported yesterday. The government will pay an estimated 500 billion rubles ($87 million) in back wages to nuclear workers by 1 July.

AX FALLS ON RAILWAYS MINISTER.

Yeltsin has replaced Railways Minister Anatolii Zaitsev with Nikolai Aksenenko, Zaitsevs deputy, Russian news agencies reported yesterday. Zaitsevs dismissal is part of the governments drive to reform the natural monopolies. First Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov recently criticized the Railways Ministry leadership for keeping transport fees too high. Meanwhile, Yeltsin yesterday accepted the resignation of State Tax Service chief Vitalii Artyukhov, who quit last week. He has not yet appointed Artyukhovs successor.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER OUTLINES SOCIAL REFORM GOALS.

Oleg Sysuev says Russia will eventually adopt a system of means-tested benefits, ITAR-TASS reported yesterday. He told a Moscow conference on social policy that adjusting levels of state support to total family income would be implemented only after the government deals with its main task of ensuring that wages and pensions are paid on time. Sysuev also estimated that reforming the pension system would take at least 20 years. Meanwhile, Yeltsin issued decrees yesterday confirming that Sysuev will also serve as labor minister and will head the trilateral commission on social and labor relations. Viktor Ilyushin was sacked as chairman of the commission during last month's cabinet reshuffle.

IS RUSSIA'S ECONOMY GROWING?

Figures released yesterday by the State Statistics Committee indicate that the Russian economy grew by 0.2% in the first quarter of 1997, Russian news agencies reported. Committee chairman Yurii Yurkov commented, the great decline in the Russian economy over the last decade has practically ended. However, some analysts told Reuters that the first registered quarterly growth in the post-Soviet period was more likely a result of changing accounting methods. The committee recently increased its estimate for the shadow economy's contribution to GDP from 20% to 23%.

GREENPEACE SAYS MOST OF RUSSIA CONTAMINATED BY DIOXINS.

Almost three-quarters of Russian territory is contaminated by cancer-causing dioxins, according to a report released yesterday by the environmental group Greenpeace. Aleksei Kiselev, co-author of the report, said Dzerzhinsk (Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast), the site of several chemical production facilities, is Russias most polluted city, Reuters reported. He said the average life expectancy in the city is only 50 years. The report, titled Poisoned Cities, also said that Serpukhov (Moscow Oblast), Nizhnii Novgorod, Moscow, and St. Petersburg have particularly high levels of dioxin pollution, ITAR-TASS reported.

NIKITIN RECEIVES U.S. AWARD.

Retired Navy captain Aleksandr Nikitin, whom Russian authorities have accused of treason and espionage, has been awarded an annual prize by the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation, Reuters reported yesterday. Nikitin was arrested in February 1996 for allegedly revealing state secrets to the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, which was preparing a report on radioactive contamination of the Kola Peninsula. He was released last December following an international outcry, but the case against him is still open.

IZVESTIYA DECRIES POLITICAL CENSORSHIP.

Izvestiya claims today that the government sought to impose political censorship after the newspaper published an article from Le Monde on Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdins alleged vast wealth (see RFE/RL Newsline, 3 and 8 April 1997). In the ensuing scandal, the oil giant LUKoil threatened to sell its stake in Izvestiya. The paper says government officials pressured the 36% state-owned LUKoil to act as Chernomyrdins censor. Izvestiya strongly supports Yeltsin and generally backs the government, but the newspaper has long been considered closer to First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais than to Chernomyrdin.

DUMA PASSES LAWS ON GOVERNMENT, TAX SYSTEM.

Duma Deputy Speaker Mikhail Gutseriev says the Federation Council is likely to approve the new version of the federal constitutional law on the government, ITAR-TASS reported yesterday. The Council rejected an earlier version in December. Under the new law, which the Duma passed on 11 April, the whole government would have to resign if the president dismissed the prime minister. Government ministers would also have to submit income and property declarations and would not be allowed to conduct business, either directly or through proxies, while in office. Last week, the Duma passed a law on the principles of the Russian tax system, which would exempt state-funded organizations from fines for non-payment of taxes if they have not received sufficient state funds to pay their employees' salaries.

ANOTHER BUS HIJACKING IN DAGESTAN.

Police in Russia's southern republic of Dagestan yesterday foiled a bus hijacking after a four-hour standoff. The hijacker, armed with a grenade and automatic rifle, commandeered a passenger bus carrying some 30 people from the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala to Kizlyar. He ordered the bus to drive to Makhachkala's airport and demanded $100,000 and a helicopter. However, local authorities persuaded the gunman to exchange his hostages for three officials, including a senior police officer. Shortly after the release of the hostages, police seized the gunman, later identified as an ethnic Chechen. Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, has witnessed a number of similar hostage dramas in recent years.




ARMENIA REJECTS AZERBAIJAN'S CLAIM ON ZOD.

An Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman has rejected as "unfounded" an Azerbaijani claim that 70% of the Zod gold deposits, located close to Armenia's frontier with Azerbaijan, are on Azerbaijani territory and that Armenian exploitation of the deposits is therefore "illegal," Armenian agencies reported on 11 April. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov reportedly made the claim early last week, and an unidentified geologist quoted by Turan on 10 April backed his statement. The U.S.-Armenian joint venture Global Gold Armenia plans to double the annual output of the Zod and Meghradzor mines to 18 metric tons by 2000, which would make Armenia the world's 13th largest gold producer.

BAKU COURT SENTENCES ISLAMISTS.

Following a seven-week trial, a Baku court yesterday sentenced four members of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan to 10-11 years in prison on charges of treason. Public prosecutor Bahram Zahidov told Turan last week that the men have given written testimony that they collaborated with, and received funding from, Iranian intelligence "in the name of the victory of Islam in Azerbaijan." Reuters, however, quotes party leader Alikram Aliyev as denying in court any involvement with the Iranian security services and claiming that the trial was "a provocation set up by the KGB." A fifth man received a two-year sentence for preparing false passports for the other accused.

AZERBAIJAN CENSORS CUT ARTICLE ON DETAINED FORMER INTERIOR MINISTER.

Azerbaijani parliamentary chairman Murtuz Alesqerov has threatened to revoke the mandates of deputies who signed an appeal calling for the release of former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov from solitary confinement. An article reporting that 20 deputies (both opposition and pro-government) have requested clemency for Hamidov because of his failing health was scheduled to appear in Zerkalo on 12 April but was cut by the censors, according to the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan. Hamidov, head of the nationalist Grey Wolves, was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment in 1995 for large-scale theft of state property. Although Zerkalo routinely appears with blank spaces where censors have cut material deemed inappropriate for publication, President Heidar Aliyev continues to insist there is freedom of the press in Azerbaijan.

NO TALKS BUT MORE DETENTIONS IN TAKJIKISTAN.

RFE/RL's Dushanbe bureau have confirmed that Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov spoke on the telephone yesterday with United Tajik Opposition (UTO) leader Abdullo Nuri. Rakhmonov told Nuri that the government is committed to negotiations with the UTO, but he admitted that eight of its members are being detained in Moscow in connection with terrorist attacks on Russian servicemen in Tajikistan. Last week, peace talks in Tehran broke up following reports of their detention. Meanwhile, two members of the opposition were detained in southern Tajikistan on the weekend, and another two were taken into custody in the Faizabad region sometime last week.




RATIFICATION OF CFE "FLANK LIMITATIONS" AGREEMENT UNDER THREAT.

Ukraine, Moldova, and Azerbaijan intend to block ratification of the May 1996 agreement allowing Russia to temporarily exceed limitations on the armaments it can deploy on its north- and south-western borders under the 1990 CFE Treaty, AFP reported yesterday, quoting unnamed diplomats in Vienna. The three countries argue that the 1996 agreement gives Russia carte blanche to deploy troops on their territories as well as in Kazakstan, Armenia, and Georgia. Georgia has expressed its support for that argument. One Armenian commentator recently wrote in Nezavisimaya gazeta that Azerbaijan has violated the so-called CFE "flank limitations" by deploying in Nakhichevan more than 500 East German tanks supplied by Turkey.

FRANCE WANTS SECURITY PARTNERSHIP WITH NATO CANDIDATES.

A spokeswoman for President Jacques Chirac said yesterday that France wants to build a security partnership with NATO candidate countries not invited to join the alliance in the first round of eastward expansion. The statement came after talks between Chirac and Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis in Paris. The spokeswoman said Chirac wants the partnership to take the form of a charter between NATO and Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden. France has tried to have Romania included in the first group of nations but has encountered resistance from other NATO members. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are expected to be offered the first bids for membership at the NATO summit in Madrid this summer.

OSCE MISSION ARRIVES IN BELARUS.

An OSCE mission arrives in Belarus today for talks with government and opposition leaders about the political and human rights situation there. An OSCE spokesman in Vienna told RFE/RL yesterday that the delegation will remain until the end of the week. He said the Belarusian authorities have promised the mission "full access" to whomever they wish to meet. The delegation is led by Danish diplomat Rudolf Thorning-Petersen. The OSCE wanted to send a mission to Belarus last month, but the trip was canceled when it became clear the mission would be prevented from meeting with opposition members.

RUSSIAN PREMIER REJECTS CHARGE BY BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT.

Viktor Chernomyrdin has rejected a charge by Alyaksandr Lukashenka that someone in the Russian government is accepting orders from the West. Chernomyrdin yesterday called for "common sense" in relations between the two states, which two weeks ago signed a union accord. "I am somewhat bewildered by President Lukashenka's announcement that there is someone in the Russian leadership 'who is fulfilling orders from his overseas masters' to destroy Russian-Belarusian relations," Interfax quoted Chernomyrdin as saying. Some Russian government members who are concerned about Lukashenko's authoritarian tendencies reportedly helped water down the union accord.

BELARUS APOLOGIZES FOR LITHUANIAN BORDER INCIDENT.

The Belarusian embassy in Vilnius has apologized for the accidental border crossing by two of its military vehicles during maneuvers. The incident occurred on 11 April during a Belarusian military exercise in the border region of Hozha. Two vehicles apparently lost their way and crossed over into Lithuanian territory. The 700-km long border between the two countries is not clearly demarcated in many places. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry has expressed concern over what it called the "gross violation" of its border and says it hope Belarus will abide by an agreement to speed up work on the demarcation of the frontier, BNS reported on 14 April.

PROBLEMS AT UKRAINIAN NUCLEAR PLANT FIXED.

Operators at the Zaporizhska power plant, one of the largest in Europe, have restarted a reactor shut down yesterday because of a malfunctioning control rod. A plant spokeswoman told journalists that one of the 61 rods regulating chain reactions in the reactor core was descending into the core more slowly than regulations permit. She said operators fixed the malfunction by repeatedly dropping the rod down and pulling it back until it was moving at normal speed. Zaporizhska's output has decreased owing to recent minor incidents that forced five reactor to shut down. Officials say none of the problems has posed any danger within or outside the plant.

EBRD TO INVEST IN POLAND'S SHIPYARDS.

Allan Pillaux, who oversees Polish affairs at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, says the EBRD will invest in the Polish shipyard industry, RFE/RL's Warsaw correspondent reported. Pillaux was speaking after an EBRD meeting in London yesterday, which was attended by Polish Deputy Prime Minister Marek Belka and Polish National Bank President Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Former Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, who is Poland's representative at the EBRD, told journalists that Polish contracts with the bank will total $100 million.

CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH ALBRIGHT.

During her meeting with Jozef Zieleniec yesterday in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pledged equality for all new members in an enlarged NATO. Albright told journalists later that "there is no such thing as second-class membership" and that no deals will be struck with Moscow behind the backs of candidate countries. Zieleniec said only full membership in NATO is acceptable to Prague but added he does not believe NATO is negotiating any secret deals with Moscow. A spokesman for the Czech embassy in Washington told RFE/RL that Albright assured Zieleniec that NATO expansion will go ahead regardless of whether Russia agrees.

CZECH PRIME MINISTER IN BRUSSELS TO DISCUSS NATO

MEMBERSHIP. NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana told Vaclav Klaus yesterday in Brussels that the Czech Republic should engage in a more active dialogue with Russia. Klaus said at a press conference later that the NATO leadership does not want candidate countries to think that the alliance's talks with Russia are taking place without those countries' participation. Addressing the NATO Council, Klaus warned that the deepening of relations between NATO and Russia should not be allowed to "damage the position of new members."

COUNCIL OF EUROPE SECRETARY-GENERAL ON SLOVAK LANGUAGE

LAW. Daniel Tarschys says Slovakia should adopt a bill on the language rights of ethnic minorities. Slovak media reported. Tarchys, who is on a three-day visit to Slovakia, met with Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar and other top officials in Bratislava yesterday. He praised cooperation between the Council of Europe and Slovak officials, especially in amending legislation to conform to European standards. Foreign Minister Pavol Hamzik said the government is not opposed in principle to an ethnic-language law. In other news, Slovak President Michal Kovac has announced that Alexandr Rezes is to be replaced by Jan Jasovsky, director-general of the Slovak Post Service, as transportation minister. Rezes has suffered from serious health problems in recent months.

HUNGARIAN JUNIOR COALITION PARTY LEADER RESIGNS.

Ivan Peto resigned yesterday as chairman of the Alliance of Free Democrats and leader of the party's faction, Hungarian media reported. He said he was stepping down because of the need to "renew" the party before next year's elections. Peto denied any connection between his resignation and the "Marta Tocsik affair." Tocsik is an independent consultant who received fees totaling some $5 million for her services to the State Privatization and Holding Agency. Those funds are believed to have reached businessmen close to the Free Democrats. Peto is replaced as party chairman by Interior Minister Gabor Kuncze until a special congress next month elects his successor.

UPDATE ON ROW OVER HUNGARIAN HEALTH INSURANCE FUND.

Agnes Cser, director-general of the Health Insurance Fund, remains in her post for the time being, following a "stormy" meeting of the Health Insurance Authority board Hungarian media reported yesterday. Peter Simsa, head of the board, has accused Cser of causing billions of forints in losses ((see RFE/RL Newsline, 14 April 1997). No-confidence motions against both Simsa and the board as a whole were voted down, while Welfare Minister Mihaly Kokeny told the gathering that the report accusing Cser was "inadequately prepared" and "one-sided."




OPERATION ALBA GETS UNDERWAY.

The deployment of an Italian-led multinational force in Albania began today at dawn. A French naval ship arrived in the western port city of Durres, and its marine commandos secured the port. More troops and a shipment of 400 tons of food aid are also due today in Durres. Meanwhile, the first of six Italian military aircraft carrying paratroopers has landed at Tirana's airport. An advance unit of about 100 Italian troops arrived in Albania on Friday. The total force will number about 6,000 and will seek to secure aid deliveries.

ALBANIAN PRESIDENT TIGHTENS GRIP ON PARTY.

At a meeting of the National Council of President Sali Berisha's Democratic Party late Sunday, the majority firmly rebuffed 13 dissidents who had challenged his control over the party. The council also sacked three leading dissidents from the party presidency: former Finance Minister Dylber Vrioni and former Deputy Prime Ministers Dashamir Shehi and Bashkim Kopliku. Berisha's position was further strengthened by the naming of his closest aide, Genc Pollo, as secretary-general of the party.

ALBANIAN SOCIALIST LEADER BACKS INTERVENTION FORCE.

Fatos Nano says the Italian-led mission is necessary to stabilize Albania. Nano was speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service by telephone yesterday. He said the multinational force has his full backing and that political trends in the country are moving against President Sali Berisha, whom he blames for much of the current crisis. Nano was prime minister in one of the post-communist transition governments in 1991 but until recently was imprisoned for embezzlement. His backers and many foreign human rights organizations say the charges against him were politically motivated.

TUDJMAN'S PARTY STILL STRONGEST IN CROATIA.

Unofficial results of Croatia's local and parliamentary elections on 13 April show voters endorsed the status quo, with the largest group backing the nationalist Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) of President Franjo Tudjman. The unofficial results, obtained by an RFE/RL correspondent in Zagreb, show the HDZ has increased its majority in the upper house of parliament. They also show that Tudjman's party has a slight lead in elections for the crucial Zagreb City Council, controlling 24 out of 50 seats. The opposition has won other key cities, such as Rijeka, Osijek, Split, and Dubrovnik.

VOTING ENDS IN EASTERN SLAVONIA.

UN spokesmen, U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith, and local Serb leader Vojislav Stanimirovic all said in Vukovar on Monday that the vote in eastern Slavonia was largely free and fair. UN officials nonetheless blasted Croatian authorities for not delivering enough ballot papers and for irregularities in the voting lists. Polls closed early yesterday evening after a second day of voting in Croatia's last Serb-held area. First results in the vote for local and county offices are due later today. The Serbs put forward a united slate, but the Croatian vote is likely to be split between several parties.

SERBIAN OPPOSITION LEADERS SAY THEY ARE UNITED.

Vuk Draskovic, Zoran Djindjic, and Vesna Pesic of the Zajedno coalition say the "crisis of confidence" is now behind them and that they will stick to cooperation agreements they signed earlier, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Belgrade. The three leaders met yesterday in the Serbian capital to discuss their differences, which recently became public. Djindjic had objected to Draskovic's decision to run as a joint presidential candidate in the Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections due by the end of the year.

MONTENEGRIN PRESIDENT BLASTS SECRET SERVICE.

Speaking in Podgorica yesterday, Momir Bulatovic attacked the State Security Service (SDB) and called for an urgent session of the parliament to look into what he called its "violations of human rights and citizens' freedoms." An RFE/RL correspondent in Podgorica says this is the latest episode in the dispute between Bulatovic and some members of his party and of the government over ties to President Slobodan Milosevic. Bulatovic recently tried unsuccessfully to sack three ministers, including SDB chief Vukasin Maras.

ROMANIAN SENATE APPROVES BANK PRIVATIZATION BILL.

The Senate yesterday approved the bill on the privatization of banks, an RFE/RL correspondent in Bucharest reported. The bill, which will now be debated by the Chamber of Deputies, frees three-quarters of the banking system from state control. Ninety percent of the shares of each bank to be privatized will be offered for sale to Romanian or foreign investors, and the remaining 10% will be retained by the State Property Fund. Only leading international banks and financial institutions will be allowed to acquire more than 20% of the shares in a single bank. The bank privatization bill is one of the major pieces of legislation stipulated by the IMF and the World Bank as a condition for loans.

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH OPPOSITION LEADERS.

At his own request, Emil Constantinescu yesterday met with parliamentary opposition leaders to discuss laws aimed at promoting economic reforms and ways to prevent social unrest after the passage of the legislation, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. At the meeting, the opposition protested what it called the government's "political cleansing" policies in the public economic sector. Neither Ion Iliescu, former president and leader of the Party of Social Democracy in Romania, nor Corneliu Vadim Tudor, leader of the Greater Romania Party (PRM), attended the meeting, opting instead to send their deputies. Iliescu said he will participate in such discussions only if his party is invited to a separate meeting with Constantinescu or if all parliamentary parties are present. Tudor, a former Ceausescu "court poet," is currently in Libya attending a poetry festival.

BULGARIAN STATE OIL REFINERY TO BE PRIVATIZED.

The Bulgarian caretaker government yesterday approved a Privatization Agency proposal to sell up to 75% of the Neftochim oil refinery, located in the Black Sea port city of Burgas. RFE/RL's correspondent in Sofia reported that the only known bidder for the state-owned refinery to date is the Russian company Rossinvestneft. Neftochim's assets are estimated to be worth more than $9 million, but the company has debts totaling nearly $6 million. Meanwhile, caretaker premier Stefan Sofiyanski has left for Moscow to resume talks on the construction of transit pipelines on Bulgarian territory and Russian gas supplies to Bulgaria (see RFE/RL Newsline, 9 and 11 April 1997).

BULGARIAN ELECTION UPDATE.

Ahmed Dogan, leader of the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), yesterday canceled an election rally in the DPS stronghold of Kardzhali. The move was in protest against police raids the same day on properties belonging to Elzhan Rashid, one of the country's wealthiest ethnic Turk businessmen, RFE/RLs local corespondent reported. Police seized firearms, counterfeit foreign currency, and a substance believed to be heroin. Rashid himself was beaten after he put up resistance. Dogan denounced the police action as a provocation against ethnic peace aimed at discrediting ethnic Turk businessmen on the eve of the 19 April parliamentary elections. Dogan said many corrupt businessmen in Kardzhali were protected by groups close to the United Democratic Forces and the Socialists.




Moscow, Tehran, And Berlin
by Paul Goble

Moscow's warm embrace of Tehran just one day after a Berlin court held the Iranian government responsible for the assassination of exiled dissidents highlights a deep divide between East and West. On 11 April, Russian President Boris Yeltsin told visiting Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri that relations between Moscow and Tehran were "good" and would "grow." The Iranian responded on Moscow's popular TV program "Hero for a Day" by condemning what he called "the West's intrigue against the East" and by backing Russian opposition to NATO expansion.

Yeltsin's decision to reaffirm Russia's ties to a country most Western governments consider a rogue state is far more than an appeal to the Russian nationalism of his domestic opponents or a direct response to Western proposals to expand the Western alliance. True, Russian communists and nationalists were enthusiastic in their support of Yeltsin's move. But so were some individuals normally associated with democratic reforms, undermining arguments that the Russian president is trying to undercut his opponents.

Gennadii Seleznyov, the communist speaker of the Duma, not only received Nateq-Nouri but sharply criticized the German court's ruling. "No court in the world has the right to accuse a state of terrorism," Seleznyov said, thus dismissing a decision welcomed and supported by virtually all European countries and the United States. Another communist deputy added that Moscow "has spent decades building its relations with Iran, which is our strategic partner." He also expressed regret that relations had been allowed to deteriorate until now. But statements by Russian reformers and democrats were not that different. Galina Starovoitova, one of the leaders of the Russia's Choice party, told Western journalists that Moscow enjoyed "special relations" with Tehran and that "Iran continues to support us" as a counterweight to Turkey and on the question of oil and gas pipelines.

Most Russian and Western reports suggest that Yeltsin's meeting with the Iranian deputy was more than simply "an opportunity to spite" the West over NATO, as one Moscow publication wrote. It provided Yeltsin with an opportunity to cement a relationship that has already benefited Russia--not least through sales of Russian military equipment and nuclear technology.

Tehran backs Moscow's position on the status of the Caspian Sea, thus limiting the ability of Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, and Turkmenistan to export their oil and gas to the West and helping preserve Russian influence in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Iran is also a geopolitical asset for Moscow since it counterbalances U.S. and Western power in the Middle East and limits the impact of Turkey both there and in Central Asia.

But these domestic and foreign policy benefits of Moscow's ties to Tehran have an enormous price: the isolation of Russia from the West over an issue--international terrorism--that many in the West are deeply concerned about and increasingly united in opposing. The European media hailed the Berlin court ruling as both courageous and correct. The EU countries suspended their dialogue with Tehran, with many of them pulling their diplomats out of Iran. And U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said it provided support for Washington's "long-held view that Iran's sponsorship of terrorism is authorized at senior levels of the Iranian government."

By taking such a pro-Iranian position, Yeltsin and his country may find that they will lose far more than they gain. Iran, after all, is not strong enough to serve as a genuine counterweight to the West, even in the Middle East; and Tehran's embrace of Moscow may actually weaken the current Iranian government and hence its value to the Russians.

Abulhasan Banisadr, exiled former president of Iran, told RFE/RL last week that "what Russia is doing, in my opinion, is leading Iranian public opinion to understand that this regime has lost all support it had in the West." Banisadr suggested this would "permit the Iranian people to act to re-establish democracy."

Banisadr's optimism may be premature, but Yeltsin's cozying up to Iran, especially in the wake of the Berlin court decision, will almost certainly have an impact on East-West ties. Such Russian-Iranian links will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Western leaders now seeking closer relations with Moscow to continue to do so. Those leaders are likely to find it hard to carry on portraying Russia as a country aspiring to integration with the West when its government seems so bent on pursuing an "oriental" strategy. And they may well find it even more difficult to justify to their own populations any help for a government openly supporting one that has backed international terrorism.


XS
SM
MD
LG