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Newsline - April 29, 1997




RUSSIANS TO PAY MORE FOR HOUSING

President Boris Yeltsin has signed a decree shifting the costs for housing and municipal services to the public over the next six years, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported yesterday. First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov said citizens currently pay an average 27% of the cost for housing and municipal services, including water and heating bills. That system costs the state 100 trillion rubles ($17 billion) a year. Nemtsov said that under the new decree, the public would pay 35% of the cost of housing and services this year, 50% by 1998, 70% by 2000, and 100% by 2003. The government would grant subsidies to low-income families rather than to cities and towns, Nemtsov said. The presidential decree was signed as the State Duma began a two-week recess. The majority of Duma deputies are likely to strongly oppose the measure.

YELTSIN DECREES RESTRUCTURING OF GAZPROM

A second presidential decree signed yesterday outlines the principles of structural reform of Russia's natural monopolies in the energy and transportation sectors, Nemtsov told reporters. He said the state would take a more active part in managing its 40% stake in the gas giant Gazprom. He also noted that Gazprom's distribution network will not be broken up but the company will lose its monopoly on developing new gas deposits, which instead will be auctioned off. Gazprom will also be forced to publish annual reports to increase transparency of the company's finances. Like the decree on housing reform, the proposed reforms of natural monopolies will meet with sharp opposition from the government's Communist opponents.

...AND ELECTRICITY AND RAILWAY SYSTEM

Other measures outlined in Yeltsin's decree on the natural monopolies are aimed at lowering tariffs for electricity and rail transportation, Nemtsov told reporters yesterday. The government will retain its 51% stake in the electricity utility Unified Energy System (EES). The Federal Energy Commission will set rates for transmission costs over EES power lines. Power plants will be able to sell directly to large consumers. Such sales, Nemtsov said, will lower electricity bills. He added that the government hoped to attract $8 billion in foreign and domestic investment for the electricity network. He said the railways will continue to be state-owned but the government will subsidize only passenger rail transportation. In addition, commuter trains servicing major cities will be subsidized by local budgets, not the federal government.

SVYAZINVEST PRIVATIZATION TO BEGIN NEXT MONTH

In a third decree signed yesterday, Yeltsin ordered the sale of a 49% stake in the telecommunications giant Svyazinvest, Russian news agencies reported. Nemtsov told reporters that a stake of 25% plus one share will be auctioned off next month, for a minimum price of $1.2 billion. Both foreign and Russian investors will be allowed to bid for the shares. A further 24% stake in Svyazinvest will be sold later this year, but only Russian investors will be allowed to participate in that auction. According to ITAR-TASS, Svyazinvest was founded in August 1995 and has a controlling interest in 86 regional telephone companies.

RYBKIN CALLS FOR NATIONAL SECURITY POLICY

Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin writes in today's Nezavisimaya gazeta that he advocates drafting a "clear conceptual document defining strategy for countering international, military-political, and economic threats to Russia's security." He says the concept would provide the ideological foundation for the construction of Russian statehood and would determine medium-term national priorities. Rybkin singled out economic stabilization as crucial to preserving the country's defense potential and preventing social unrest, tensions between Russia's regions, and the further growth of crime in society and the economic sphere. He also argued that Russia's security system should be coordinated with international and regional systems, in particular the CIS Collective Security system. NATO is not mentioned in the article. Last year, Yeltsin called for the drafting of national security policy.

ANOTHER BOMB ATTACK IN NORTH CAUCASUS

Two people were killed and 17 injured when a bomb exploded yesterday at the railway station in the north Caucasus town of Pyatigorsk, Russian agencies reported. Russian Security spokesmen said that 30 people have been detained in connection with the blast, which they attributed to Chechen militants. Chechen Vice President Vakha Arsanov has denied any Chechen involvement, according to ITAR-TASS.

LUZHKOV ACCUSES OPPONENTS OF PLOTTING AGAINST UNION WITH BELARUS

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov says First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais, Security Council Deputy Secretary Boris Berezovskii, and Russia's Democratic Choice leader Yegor Gaidar are plotting to scuttle a Russian- Belarusian union, Interfax reported yesterday. Luzhkov argued that the majority of citizens are in favor of the union but that opponents are waging an anti-Belarusian media campaign and seeking a nationwide referendum on unification as a stalling tactic. Berezovskii dismissed Luzhkov's comments as "populism." Although Luzhkov has repeatedly denied having presidential ambitions, he is considered among the likely candidates to succeed Yeltsin. In recent months, he has made many pronouncements likely to appeal to nationalist voters, in particular claiming that the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol is Russian territory.

COMPROMISE REACHED IN ROMANOV JEWELS CONTROVERSY

Jewels from the Romanov dynasty were moved from Washington's Corcoran Gallery to the Russian embassy yesterday after Russian and U.S. negotiators reached agreement over the future of the priceless collection, AFP and ITAR-TASS reported. Russian officials said the jewels, along with other Romanov artifacts, would be shown in Houston, Texas, before being returned to Russia. The exhibits were originally scheduled to go on show in four U.S. cities but will now be returned in time for the celebrations of Moscow's 850th anniversary. Russian officials had demanded the immediate return of the artifacts last week, citing safety concerns.

MASKHADOV WANTS ANOTHER CONTRACT ON CASPIAN OIL TRANSPORTATION

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov yesterday called for a contract to be drawn up between Chechnya, Russia, and an international consortium exploiting three Azerbaijani Caspian oil fields to regulate the export of that oil via Chechnya to Novorossiisk, Interfax reported. But under its obligations to the Azerbaijani government, the consortium is required only to transport the oil as far as the Azerbaijani-Russian frontier. The oil is then transported through Russia under a separate agreement between the Azerbaijani government and the Russian pipeline company Transneft. Segodnya on 25 April reported that the Chechen leadership will agree to the transportation of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil to Novorossiisk only if Russia approves the construction of a second pipeline to transport Kazakstan's Tengiz oil through Grozny to Georgia where it will link up with the Baku-Supsa pipeline.

FIRE RAVAGES FAR EAST ARMS DEPOT

Shells were still exploding yesterday after a fire broke out on 27 April at an arms depot in Bira (Jewish Autonomous Oblast), RFE/RL's correspondent in Khabarovsk reported. Traffic was brought to a halt on the Trans-Siberian Railroad for several hours and power lines to Primorskii Krai were cut. A spokesman for the Federal Security Service told ITAR-TASS that a "flagrant violation" of safety rules was to blame for the fire But Lt. Gen. Vasilii Yukashev, chief of the Far Eastern Military District headquarters, suggested that a forest fire was responsible. It was the seventh Russian arms depot fire and the fifth in the Far East since May 1994. Aleksandr Zhilin, a military analyst for Moskovskie novosti and RFE/RL, commented that some experts say the fires are caused by lax discipline, while others suggest they are set deliberately to conceal illegal arms exports.

IS DUMA SEEKING TO ANNUL POWER-SHARING TREATIES?

Kommersant-Daily says a law recently adopted by the Duma would scrap the bilateral power-sharing agreements signed between the federal government and 26 regions. The daily was referring to a law passed by the Duma on 25 April declaring the Russian constitution and federal legislation to be supreme on all Russian Federation territory. The legislation was reportedly in response to concerns about "legal separatism" in the regions. But Kommersant-Daily said the next day that the law would upset the "truce" between Moscow and the regions because it would suspend the power-sharing agreements until the passage of special federal laws. The newspaper predicted that the Federation Council, which is made up of executive and legislative leaders from each region, will reject the law.

TURKEY TO BUY RUSSIAN NATURAL GAS

The Turkish government has signed a 25-year agreement worth $13.5 billion with Gazprom, Reuters reported yesterday, quoting Mustafa Murathan, head of the Turkish national pipeline company Botas. Under that agreement, Turkish purchases of Russian natural gas will be increased from the current annual level of 6 billion cubic meters to 30 billion cubic meters. It is unclear how much gas will be transported to Turkey by the sole existing pipeline. Gazprom and Botas are currently conducting a feasibility study for a new pipeline from Izobilnoye to Ankara. Gazprom is seeking $3 billion in funding from European banks to finance the project.




UYGHURS DEMONSTRATE IN KAZAKSTAN

Some 35 ethnic Uyghurs demonstrated in front of the Chinese Embassy in Almaty yesterday to protest the sentencing of 30 Uyghurs in China on charges of instigating the February riots in Yining, Xinjiang Province, Interfax and Reuters reported. Three of accused had been sentenced to death, while the others received stiff jail terms. The executions were carried out the same day as sentencing. Some demonstrators in Almaty were detained by Kazak militia.

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT MAKES STATEMENT ON SOROS'S LETTER

Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev yesterday said he will not get involved in problems between the Kyrgyz media and the republic's branch of the Soros foundation, ITAR-TASS reported. He added that those problems are "an internal affair of the Kyrgyz media." Soros recently sent Akayev a letter protesting media allegations that Chinara Jakipova, the head of the Kyrgyz branch of this foundation, has misused funds (see RFE/RL Newsline, 28 April 1997).

UZBEK UPDATE

Uzbek President Islam Karimov late last week blasted the Russian press for being "in the pocket" of Russian companies such as LUKoil and Gazprom, Interfax and Kommersant Daily reported. Karimov was speaking at a session of the parliament earlier this week devoted to human rights, access to information, and the defense of journalists. He urged deputies to adopt new legislation stipulating that not only journalists but also their sources are responsible for what is reported. At the same session, Sayera Rashidova was appointed parliamentary commissioner on human rights. When Karimov asked her what she needs to fulfill her duties, Rashidova replied she had sufficient powers and would rely on "suggestions from state organs" as to how she can best perform her functions.




RUSSIAN-BELARUSIAN UNION TO GO INTO FORCE BY JUNE?

Vladimir Grigoriev, the deputy head of a Russian- Belarusian commission overseeing the creation of the union between the two countries, says the union could go into force by June. Grigoriyev told journalists in Moscow yesterday that he expects the agreement to be ratified by the countries' parliaments in June. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, signed a watered-down version of the union treaty on 2 April. The accompanying charter was submitted for public discussion until 15 May.

ESTONIA JOINS FIVE MAJOR EUROPEAN CONVENTIONS

Estonia has joined five major Council of Europe penal conventions, ETA reported. Karin Jaani, the Estonian permanent representative to the council, handed over the instruments of ratification to Daniel Tarschys, secretary- general of the council, in Strasbourg yesterday. The conventions are on extradition, cooperation in criminal proceedings, exchange of information on foreign law, the transfer of criminal proceedings, and the transfer of sentenced persons. Meanwhile, the Estonian secret police has submitted to the official publication Riigi Teataja the names of 25 people who collaborated with the KGB and who did not voluntarily admit to collaboration before 1 April 1996, BNS reported yesterday. Under Estonian law, Riigi Teataja must reveal the identity of KGB collaborators who have not owned up to their former activities. Earlier this year, the names of the first seven such collaborators were published.

LATVIAN PRESIDENT IN POLAND

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his Latvian counterpart, Guntis Ulmanis, have stressed their intention to join the EU and NATO, RFE/RL's Warsaw correspondent reported yesterday. Ulmanis, who is on a three-day official visit to Poland, is also expected to meet with top government and parliamentary leaders. Polish Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati and his Latvian counterpart, Valdis Birkavs, signed a free trade agreement that will gradually lift customs duties on industrial and agricultural goods. Trade volume between the two countries last year reached $97 million.

EU TO HOLD SEPARATE TALKS WITH POLAND, HUNGARY

The EU foreign ministers have decided to hold separate discussions today and tomorrow with Poland and Hungary on issues related to those countries' possible admission to the union, RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent reported. The way for talks with Poland was cleared when the ministers decided Poland had made sufficient concessions on citrus fruit imports. EU officials have been pressing Poland for several weeks to relax its tough import-tax regime against citrus fruit, which the EU considers discriminatory. Trade issues such as Poland's special arrangements with the South Korean company Daewoo are expected to be dealt with. EU and Hungarian representatives are to meet simultaneously to discuss Budapest's decision to abolish tariffs against citrus fruits as of the end of this year. The EU is also seeking assurances that Hungary will phase out a general import surcharge by 1 July.

CZECH POLITICAL ROUNDUP

The ruling three-party coalition agreed yesterday that they will draft by the end of next month a constitutional amendment subdividing the country into administrative regions, Czech media reported. The 1992 Czech Constitution stipulates that the regions be created, but the ruling coalition--in particular, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party--has repeatedly postponed such a decision. Meanwhile, an opinion poll by the Institute for Public Opinion Research released in today's media today suggests that only 24% of Czechs are satisfied with the political situation, down 10 percentage points since last month.

CZECHS MAY EASE IMPORT RESTRICTIONS.

Czech Industry and Trade Minister Vladimir Dlouhy says the government may grant a Hungarian request to ease import deposit measures introduced last week. But he added that there will be no major changes. Dlouhy was speaking to journalists in Budapest on 28 April after meeting with Industry and Trade Minister Szabolcs Fazakas and Gabor Szeles, president of the National Confederation of Hungarian Industrialists. Dlouhy said there is no economic crisis in the Czech Republic but admitted that the country's trade balance and current account have worsened, necessitating the introduction of import restrictions. Fazakas said Hungary wishes to review the list of the goods to which the restrictions apply.

SLOVAK AMBASSADOR RETURNS TO PRAGUE

Ivan Mjartan, the Slovak ambassador to the Czech Republic, returns to Prague today following his recall to Bratislava three week ago for what the Slovak government called consultations, CTK reports. Mjartan was recalled after Czech President Vaclav Havel told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar is paranoid in his position on NATO expansion. The Slovak government has demanded that Havel apologize for his comments and that the Czech government return about 4.5 tons of gold. Havel admitted in his weekly radio address on 27 April that his remarks may have been "impertinent."

RUSSIAN PREMIER DISCUSSES BILATERAL RELATIONS, NATO IN SLOVAKIA

Viktor Chernomyrdin, who is on a two- day official visit to Bratislava, met with Meciar yesterday to discuss bilateral economic relations. Chernomyrdin told journalists later that the talks were "very successful" and that the two sides discussed the final details of several agreements to be signed today. A spokesman for Slovak President Michal Kovac said Chernomyrdin told the president earlier that day that Russia remains opposed to NATO's planned expansion and warned that former Warsaw Pact members seeking NATO admission "risk affecting their relations" with Moscow.

SLOVAKIA CONSIDERS U.S. CRITICISM UNFAIR

Slovak Foreign Minister Pavol Hamzik says U.S. criticism over the pace of reforms in Slovakia is unfair. Hamzik told journalists in Bratislava yesterday that his country is progressing in the same direction as its neighbors. Referring to his visit to Washington last week, he said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's comments that Slovakia is dragging its feet over democratic reforms are "not justified."

HUNGARIAN SOCIALIST FACTION WANTS TO BE RID OF HORN

The Socialist Democratic Group, a faction within the ruling party, says Prime Minister Gyula Horn must be dismissed as prime minister and party chairman, Magyar Hirlap reported today. The group says that although Horn's merits are beyond doubt, the radical right-wing parties will increase their electoral appeal if Horn remains in office. It pointed out that the electorate is disappointed with the mistakes of the leadership, whose methods, it said, are incompatible with "moral norms." The group also commented that the party lacks internal democracy. It urged the Socialists to call an extraordinary congress for the fall and choose a new candidate for the premiership.

POSITIVE ECONOMIC TRENDS CONTINUE IN HUNGARY

The Ministry of Finance reported yesterday that exports grew 4.1% in dollar terms during the first two months of this year, while imports increased by 2.1%, Hungarian media reported. The ministry forecasts that GDP will grow 2-2.5% this year, as compared with 1.5% in 1995 and 1% last year. It says real wages grew by 6% in January and 4% in February and that wage growth is expected to continue slowing down. Consumer prices rose less than expected in the same period. But unemployment was 11% at the end of March, up from 10.5% in December 1996.




POLITICAL ROW THREATENS ALBANIAN ELECTIONS

Albanian Justice Minister Spartak Ngjela said in Tirana yesterday that disagreements between rival political parties could derail plans to hold general elections in June. He added that he wants to reach agreement on voting rules by 15 May and that he has prepared a draft "emergency election law." Ngjela argued that holding the vote in August will be "too late." The governing Democratic Party wants legislators elected by direct ballot, while the opposition favors proportional representation. The current direct ballot system has kept many smaller parties out of the parliament. Ngjela also said that voter lists have been destroyed in the anarchy that followed the collapse of pyramid investment schemes early this year.

ALBANIAN PRESIDENT SACKS BANK CHIEF

President Sali Berisha fired Kristaq Luniku as governor of the Bank of Albania over the weekend and replaced him with Qamil Tusha. Berisha said that Luniku has been away from Tirana too long to do his job properly, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported today. Luniku has spent the past two months in Washington working with the IMF, while Tusha has been the deputy director of the National Trade Bank. The German daily suggests that Berisha may firied Luniku on account of his outspokenness.

CROATIA SENDS INDICTED WAR CRIMINAL TO HAGUE

Zagreb authorities handed over Zlatko Aleksovski to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal yesterday. He is wanted for atrocities against Muslims in the Lasva Valley during the 1993 Croatian-Muslim war. The Croatian government has been under considerable international pressure for some time to cooperate more fully with the court, but Aleksovski is the first person the Zagreb authorities have delivered to The Hague. Lat year, Gen. Tihomir Blaskic gave himself up voluntarily.

U.S. AMBASSADOR CALLS RUSSIA BIGGEST ARMS SUPPLIER TO BOSNIA, CROATIA

Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith told the independent Split weekly Feral Tribune yesterday that Russia was the single largest supplier of weapons to the two republics during the conflict. He also noted that Russia was officially strongly opposed to lifting the arms embargo on the former Yugoslav republics. International media attention has tended to focus on Iranian weapons deliveries to Bosnia and Croatia. Galbraith said that Washington was justified in "turning a blind eye" to the Iranian shipments because those weapons helped Sarajevo and other towns from suffering the same fate as Srebrenica and Zepa.

CROATIAN UNIONS PRESENT ULTIMATUM

Five of the largest trade unions said yesterday that they want the government to agree on setting up an Economic and Social Council by 20 May, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Zagreb. If the authorities do not agree, the unions will set up an arbitration board on their own. Also in Zagreb, Development Minister Jure Radic said it is not in Croatia's interest for Serbs to remain concentrated in eastern Slavonia after that area reverts to Croatian control in July. He added that the government will encourage Serbs not originally from there to go back to their old homes.

CROATIA, SLOVENIA SIGN AGREEMENTS

Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic and his Slovenian counterpart, Zoran Thaler, met in Ljubljana yesterday and signed several documents dealing with cross-border travel, cooperation, and social security. Granic said the two countries' views on outstanding border problems have become closer. But the key issues today are the same as six years ago, when the two former Yugoslav republics became independent. Those questions center on Slovenia's access to the sea, the status of the Krsko nuclear power plant, and the fate of Croatian deposits in the Ljubljanska Banka.

BILDT, UN POLICE SLAM THREATS TO FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT IN BOSNIA

The office of the international community's High Representative Carl Bildt said yesterday that Muslim authorities in the Tuzla area prevented Serbian Orthodox Bishop Vasilj Kacavenda from attending Orthodox Easter services in the mainly Croatian-Muslim federation over the weekend. According to an RFE/RL correspondent in Sarajevo, Bildt's office charged that the Muslims' behavior reinforced the division of the republic along ethnic lines. Also in the Bosnian capital, the UN police say they will step up their presence in some parts of the city to guarantee freedom of movement and prevent the local police from abusing their powers. The police added, however, that the problems are not ethnic in nature.

KOSOVO LEADER WARNS EU ON TRADE PERKS FOR BELGRADE

Shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova wrote the EU Council of Foreign Ministers in Luxembourg yesterday that any trade liberalization for federal Yugoslavia must be linked to an improvement of the situation in Kosovo. Rugova says that the Kosovo problem must be resolved in the ethnic Albanian majority's favor before the EU extends former Yugoslavia's trade privileges to Belgrade. The EU already grants such commercial rights to the other former Yugoslav republics, and the ministers are due to decide today on also giving them to federal Yugoslavia.

ROMANIAN PREMIER, FOREIGN MINISTER IN BRUSSELS

Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea says his country has important advantages over other candidates wishing to join NATO. Ciorbea was speaking to reporters after addressing the 16 ambassadors to the alliance. He noted that Romania was not integrated into the former Warsaw Pact and that 80% of its military equipment is produced at home. He also pointed out that the country has sent peace-keeping troops to three countries--Bosnia, Angola, and Albania. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Adrian Severin told an RFE/RL reporter that Romania's offer last week to replace U.S. troops in Bosnia with its own troops was neither a "proposal nor a pledge" and should be considered to express "only a political position" and a "technical possibility." A decision on such issues can be made only by the country's Supreme Military Council and is subject to the parliament's approval, Severin added.

ROMANIA REACHES COMPROMISE WITH UKRAINE OVER BASIC TREATY

Severin also told reporters in Brussels that his country has reached "a compromise treaty" with Ukraine and that the accord will be initialed during his scheduled visit to Kyiv on 3 May, AFP reported. Severin said the document will protect Romania's "strategic interests" and contains "important provisions on the national minorities," but he gave no details. President Emil Constantinescu and his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kuchma, discussed the treaty in Istanbul, where they are attending a three-day Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) conference, Reuters reported. Following the meeting, Constantinescu confirmed that the treaty will be finalized at the beginning of next month.

ROMANIA, MOLDOVA, UKRAINE TO ESTABLISH "EURO-REGIONS."

President Constantinescu says he has agreed with his Ukrainian and Molodovan counterparts, Leonid Kuchma and Petru Lucinschi, to set up two "Euro-Regions" in areas where their three borders converge. Constantinescu told Radio Bucharest that the agreement was reached yesterday in Istanbul within the framework of the BSEC conference. He added that he originally proposed the idea to Lucinschi, who discussed it with Kuchma. The construction of new road links in the "Euro-Regions" will allow for intensified economic cooperation and cultural contacts. The regions will be mentioned in the pending bilateral treaty with Ukraine.

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT ON FUTURE OF TRANSDNIESTER REGION

President Lucinschi says "content" will be more important than "form" in determining the future of relations between Chisinau and the breakaway Transdniester region. In response to a BASA-press reporter's question of whether he would agree to the federalization of Moldova, Lucinschi said he has told the Transdniestrian leaders that "the novel should be written first and only later given a title." He added that it is more important to first negotiate removing obstructions to bilateral relations, such as the border guards on the Dniester River. But he noted that other non-federal states, including Spain, Italy, Finland, and Canada, have regions with a special status. Lucinschi was speaking on the occasion of the first 100 days of his presidency.




IS RUSSIA'S PEACEKEEPING FORCE IN ABKHAZIA A NEW CASUS BELLI?


by Liz Fuller

Politicians and political commentators in both Russia and Georgia predict that fighting between Georgia's central government and its breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia may soon break out again. The catalyst for rising tensions is the peace-keeping force deployed by Russia in June 1994 along Georgia's internal border with Abkhazia. The main task of the force--which is overwhelmingly Russian but operates under the aegis of the CIS--is to expedite the return to their homes of up to 200,000 ethnic Georgians who fled from the region during hostilities the previous year.

But the planned repatriation has been obstructed by the Abkhaz authorities, which tried to limit the number of returning Georgians to 200 a month. The peacekeepers have been unable to prevent violent reprisals by Abkhaz militants against some Georgian families who succeeded in returning to their homes. Moreover, the peacekeepers themselves have sustained considerable losses. Some 40 military and medical personnel have died in terrorist incidents, which the Abkhaz claim were perpetrated by Georgian agents provocateurs with links to that country's Ministry of National Security.

The modalities for the repatriation of Abkhazia's Georgian population are laid down in an April 1994 agreement between Georgian, Abkhaz, Russian, and UN representatives. But the Abkhaz authorities have sought to delay its implementation by insisting, for example, that all applications to return to Abkhazia be screened to preclude the repatriation of Georgians involved in the 1992-1993 fighting. Many displaced Georgian families chose to circumvent the official procedures and returned illegally to their homes, primarily in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, whose pre-war population was 90% Georgian. Thousands of displaced Georgians are still quartered in hotels in Tbilisi and are increasingly exerting pressure on the Georgian leadership to expedite their return--if necessary by a military reconquest of Abkhazia.

Three years of talks on a political settlement defining future relations between the Georgian and Abkhaz authorities have yielded minimal results. Tbilisi has offered Sukhumi what it terms "maximum autonomy" within a federation, but the Abkhaz have insisted they will accept nothing less than equal status within a confederation. In the hope of securing Russian help in restoring its hegemony over Abkhazia, the Georgian leadership insisted that ratification of a 1995 treaty granting Russia the right to maintain military bases in Georgia be made contingent on Russian assistance in increasing the combat capability of the shambolic Georgian armed forces and in restoring Georgia's territorial integrity.

Beginning in January 1996, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has repeatedly tried to persuade fellow CIS heads of state that the peacekeepers' mandate should be expanded to enable them to protect repatriated families more effectively, but he has had no success. At last month's CIS summit in Moscow, participants agreed that the area over which the peacekeepers are deployed should be extended northward to include the whole of Gali Raion and part of the neighboring Ochamchire Raion. It was also agreed that a plan to implement that decision should be drawn up by late April.

The Abkhaz leadership protested that the decision violated the formal May 1994 cease-fire agreement, whereby any change in the mandate of the peacekeeping force requires the consent of both the Georgian and the Abkhaz sides. Abkhaz Minister of Defense Vladimir Mikanba recently explained that the advance of peacekeepers into Ochamchire would necessitate moving Abkhaz military detachments currently deployed there and would thus put the local Abkhaz population in danger. He said Abkhazia would insist that the peacekeepers be withdrawn altogether rather than be allowed to redeploy. He also warned that such a development would result in new fighting between Georgian and Abkhaz troops.

If hostilities were to resume, it is by no means certain that the Georgians could achieve their presumed objective of a swift and decisive military victory. Mikanba claims that Abkhazia would be able to mobilize 30,000 reservists to support its regular 5,000 troops. Georgian Defense Minister Vardiko Nadibaidze claimed last year that the Georgian armed forces number 49,000, but independent observers consider that figure inflated. Georgia is said to enjoy a numerical advantage in terms of armored vehicles, aircraft, and artillery, while Abkhazia reportedly has more naval landing craft. Those vessels could prove advantageous if the Abkhaz chose to launch an attack behind Georgian lines or to engage in judicious sabotage. The port of Poti, from where Georgia plans to export a shipment of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil to Ukraine next month, is only some 25 km down the coast from the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.


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